The 21,091 smart, healthy men who joined the Harvard-based Physicians' Health Study with no evidence of coronary disease over 20 years ago are now proving by their own good or bad behavior the value of the advice they have been giving to their patients for years about the effect of weight, exercise, and diet on the heart.
In a just released report in the journal Circulation, even modestly increased weight was associated with an increase in heart failure resulting from heart attacks, diabetes, or high blood pressure. In this group, which now averages 53 years of age, for every pound added on, the risk of heart trouble grew, so that obese physicians faced a sobering 180 percent increase in their chance of heart failure compared with their leaner colleagues.
The good news is that independently, exercise conferred protection. Even for men who are overweight or frankly obese, vigorous activity significantly reduced heart risk. And compared with their chubbier or less active compatriots, the men who were both lean and active won out with the strongest hearts.
Diet was surely a factor as well. In an earlier study of these same men, those who regularly started their day with a heart-healthy breakfast cereal of whole grains—compared with refined grains—had fewer heart problems. Whole-grain cereals are preferable for their fiber, nutrients, and their beneficial effect on blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and insulin sensitivity, and they are likely to be a marker for eating better the rest of the day.
Now, what about the female physicians? When the Physicians' Health Study began, there were only a few of them, so, as was common in those days, women were left out. However, 74,091 U.S. nurses have stepped up with their own Nurses' Health Study and shown that smart, healthy women who watch their weight, exercise, and eat right are blessed every bit as much as men with stronger and healthier hearts.