Exercise and Heart Attack Survival

A heart attack may be inevitable for some people, but researchers found that those who exercise had a better shot at surviving.

We all know that exercise is good for us. It builds muscle, burns fat, encourages production of important neurochemicals and hormones, improves digestion, reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and the list goes on.

We’re all familiar with the visible, well-known benefits of exercise, but science is constantly finding new ways that regular physical activity can keep us alive longer. The European Society of Cardiology recently released a study that discovered another one: exercise can improve heart attack survival rates.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark studied over 14,000 people, none of whom had ever had a stroke or heart attack. The study started with data from 1976 to 1978 and ran all the way until 2013. Of the original participants, 1,664 had suffered a myocardial infarction (heart attack). Of those 1,664 people, 425 people had died immediately.

The researchers examined activity levels among the heart attack patients and found that those who engaged in more physical activity had a lower mortality risk than those who did not. Moderate exercise led to a 32% decrease in mortality risk, while high-intensity exercise reduced the chance of death by heart attack by a whopping 47%.

The data makes one thing clear: the more exercise you do, the lower your risk of dying from a heart attack. While this study only examined patients who suffered myocardial infarctions, the truth is that the results can apply to all cardiovascular disease. By doing more and higher intensity exercise, you can drastically reduce your risk of heart problems, especially fatal ones. As the research proved, you have a much higher chance of surviving a heart attack if you have been doing exercise.

How does exercise increase survival rates? The researchers had two theories:

  1. Exercise increases nitric oxide production, which improves circulation by dilating the blood vessels. This increase in circulation could reduce injury to the heart caused by a heart attack.
  2. Exercise helps to develop collateral blood vessels in the heart. These collateral vessels may be able to keep blood pumping to the heart even in cases of serious blockage of the main blood vessel.

Professor Eva Prescott, professor of cardiovascular prevention and rehabilitation, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, said: “This was an observational study so we cannot conclude that the associations are causal. The results need to be confirmed before we can make strong recommendations. But I think it’s safe to say that we already knew exercise was good for health and this might indicate that continuing to exercise even after developing atherosclerosis may reduce the seriousness of a heart attack if it does occur.”


1. Hanne Ejlersen, Zorana Jovanovic Andersen, My Catarina von Euler-Chelpin, Pernille Palm Johansen, Peter Schnohr, Eva Prescott. “Prognostic impact of physical activity prior to myocardial infarction: Case fatality and subsequent risk of heart failure and death.European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 2017; 204748731770204.