Cardiovascular disease is a problem we should all strive to avoid. One interesting aspect of staying healthy in relation to cardiovascular disease is the interplay of exercise intensity and the accumulation of risk factors for disease. In recent articles I’ve discussed how more exercise decreases available antioxidants, which can affect your susceptibility to diseases like cancer. I’ve also discussed how to mitigate this issue. But how about cardiovascular disease? Interestingly, exercise decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease, but can increase the chance of risk factors like homocysteine and inflammation.
In a recent study in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers looked at competitive handball players and how their exercise affected their risk factors for cardiovascular disease. In particular, they were looking at the theory that the B vitamin folic acid can have a protective effect much like antioxidants do against cancer.
What they learned was that the intensity of exercise correlated directly to elevated plasma homocysteine levels, and also inflammation. So although in studies in the past where researchers determined that exercise reduces the chance of cardiovascular disease, it seems this isn’t the whole truth and perhaps the more intensely you exercise, the less the benefit – and you may even possibly experience an increase in risk.
The reason the researchers looked at folic acid specifically was its demonstrated ability in reduction of homocysteine, one of the key risk factors. The researchers found that as exercise intensity increases, consuming more folic acid doesn’t seem to increase plasma folic acid levels, but what it does do is reduce circulating homocysteine. Because of this, supplemental folic acid seems to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease that may come along with intense exercise. They also found that with a normal diet athletes typically consumed less folic acid than recommended.
What they also found was that engaging in lower intensity aerobic exercise also reduced homocysteine levels. So it isn’t just that the intensity of the exercise was found to correlate with an increase in risk factors, but the lower intensity also reduced homocysteine that accumulates during intense exercise.
This study illustrates two of the most important basics when exercising. First is a good diet is essential. It may not be necessary to supplement with folic acid if you are spending time doing aerobic work and keeping your diet in check. Second is to have a varied program. Even if you have a focus such as developing strength or always doing high intensity anaerobic cardio work, you should still be spending time developing your aerobic system. Not only will developing your aerobic system help to protect you from changes in the body that can lead to cardiovascular disease, but it will ultimately make you a better athlete as well.
1. Jorge Molina-Lopez, et. al., “Effect of folic acid supplementation on homocysteine concentration and association with training in handball players,” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2013, 10:10
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