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The best heart medicine is not always found in a pill.

The longtime motto of the medical journal, The Physician and Sportsmedicine, is “Exercise is medicine.”

The data published in numerous studies over the decades supports this notion — perhaps then the reason we find that retired professional athletes are healthier than the general public.

However, what is cause and what is effect? Inherently good health may be just another part of being a superior athlete.

What of the rest of us who were not so blessed with athletic ability? Furthermore, now that work schedules don’t necessarily allow for a daily workout, is there any benefit to being only a weekend warrior?

A study published last month in the American College of Sports Medicine’s journal answers the questions — again — regarding the benefits of physical activity, right down to whether or not “weekends only" does any good.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland, looked at over 3,000 individuals. They had participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2003 and 2006, were age of 40 or older, and had their activity tracked via an accelerometer. Then, the mortality of those individuals was followed until the end of 2013.

Thereafter, the subjects were classified based on “time spent per week in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.”

The weekly recommended amount of MVPA is 150 minutes. The researchers looked at those who were classified as inactive (less than 37.5 minutes of MVPA), insufficiently active (37.5-150) and sufficiently active (150 minutes per week or more). They further sub-divided the groups into those who were “regularly active” all week, “sufficiently active” weekend warriors, and “insufficiently active” weekend warriors. 

One would assume that the “inactive” subjects had the highest death rate and that was the case. Yet, those who were active but insufficiently so did no worse than the sufficiently active. All other groups experienced a 60-69 percent reduction in mortality compared to those who were inactive. In fact, those with the highest level of activity may have been at a slightly higher risk of death than those who were not quite as active.

It is worth noting that other studies show that weekend warriors are more likely to suffer an orthopedic injury while exercising than the those who are active more frequently. Debi Pillarella, M.Ed., CMES, who is the director of Bariatric Services at Community Hospital in Munster, was encouraged by and agreed with the findings. “The standard guidelines of getting 150 minutes of physical activity weekly or 10,000 steps a days are a daunting task for many” she said, ”especially when, at the end of a day, their FitBit or Apple Watch tells them they've barely reached 1,000 steps.”

The FitBit, Apple Watch, and other fitness trackers contain accelerometers.

“This all or none principle is 'old school' and the risks associated with sitting and sedentary lifestyles far outweigh being physically active for whatever amount of time you can,” Pillarella said, “which is why any physical activity if better than no activity.”

And it is certainly better for the heart than any over-the-counter dietary supplement. That is according to a commentary authored by Montreal cardiologist Dr. Christopher Labos and published online by Medscape on Wednesday.

While acknowledging calcium and Vitamin D supplements were good for bone health, Labos reported that not a single supplement, including fish oil, has been found to prevent cardiovascular disease. “The routine use of multivitamin supplementation is costly and unnecessary,” he concluded.

Rather than taking an unprescribed pill, better to take Pillarella’s advice.

“Actually, (the effect of the) physical activity you do when 'not formally exercising' is profound,” she said. “Even leisurely movements like walking the dog or playing with the kids at the park can lead to improved muscle tone, enhanced mental well-being, increased energy, and if combined with other healthy lifestyle habits, weight reduction as well as reduced risk of chronic medical conditions like heart disease or diabetes."

John Doherty is a licensed athletic trainer and physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at jdoherty@comhs.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.

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