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Out of Shape? Sex May Be Risky for Your Heart
Here's yet another incentive to stay fit: Regular physical exercise can help lower your risk of a heart attack during short bursts of strenuous activity — including sex.
By Erica Patino
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Tuesday, March 22, 2011 —A newJournal of the American Medical Associationstudy found a small increased risk that sex or an intense workout can indeed trigger a heart attack. But experts are quick to point out that both are still heart-healthy activities for most people.
After they analyzed 14 studies, Harvard and Tufts researchers found that episodic physical activity temporarily increased the risk of heart attack by 3.5 times and sudden death by 5 times; episodic sex raised heart attack risk by 2.7 times. (The term "episodic" refers to the fact that the effect of physical or sexual activity is short-lived — lasting 1 to 2 hours during and following these activities.) The study authors did not have data on sexual activity and risk of sudden death.
But the overall risk of having a heart attack after kickboxing or a romp in the hay is still very small: For every 10,000 people who strenuously exercised or had sex for an additional hour per week, there would be one to two cases of heart attack or sudden cardiac death per year, according to study coauthor Jessica Paulus, ScD, an instructor in the department of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health.
"It's important to understand that the risk is only elevated for a short period of time during and after the episodic physical and sexual activity," says Dr. Paulus. "These triggers have a relatively small impact on an individual's risk of heart attack over a long period of time." The small increased risk is dwarfed, she says, by the fact that, overall, regular exercise can actuallydecreaseyour absolute risk of heart problems by 30 percent.
Indeed, patients who were more active on a regular basis were less susceptible to the small risk increases from sporadic exercise or sex. Each additional workout a week decreased the risk of heart attack by 45 percent and sudden death by 30 percent, the study found.
So, Is Sex Safe forYourHeart?
This study isn't saying that you should skip sex or exercise because of potential heart risks. Rather, it's important to exercise regularly to help build your heart's endurance to minimize such risks.
When you engage in physically strenuous activity, your body experiences a surge in the hormone adrenaline, which speeds up your heart rate and raises your blood pressure. Regular exercise helps your cardiovascular system adapt so it's less susceptible to such adrenaline spikes, says Everyday Health heart expert Arthur Agatston, MD, a preventive cardiologist and best-selling author of .
Related: Calculate Your 10-Year Heart Attack Risk
"When you exercise habitually, you have less risk for a heart attack — although you still have some small risk," says Dr. Agatston. "However, regular exercise that's not overly strenuous is far more likely to lower your heart attack risk than raise it."
What if I Rarely Exercise?
If you're worried about your heart health or have risk factors for heart disease, talk to your doctor before starting a workout regimen. "People who are not regular exercisers— especially those who may be at a higher risk for heart attacks — should increase their physical activity very gradually and under the care of a doctor," says Paulus.
Agatston recommends starting slowly and working up to the American Heart Association recommendation of a minimum of 30 minutes of activity five times per week. Try low-impact cardio exercises, such as walking, jogging on a treadmill, using an elliptical machine, or swimming.
Related: Heart-Friendly Exercise Advice
Interval training, in which you alternate short bursts of higher-intensity activity with your usual pace, is especially heart-healthy. Raising and lowering your heart rate in this way has been shown to make blood vessels function better, help clear fat and sugar from the blood more efficiently, and burn more calories.
Keep in mind that your risk of heart problems also increases with age. "As you get older — in your forties, fifties, sixties — it's important to ease into activities you don't do often, such as shoveling snow," Agatston suggests.
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