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Commonly Held Ideas About Exercise and Heart Attacks Are Proven Wrong

People often associate sudden bursts of exercise with a dramatically increased risk of heart attack, especially for sedentary middle-aged adults. But a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows this perception is wrong.

In the northern hemisphere each winter, doctors issue warnings. They say shoveling wet, heavy snow can lead to a heart attack, especially for men who are not used to exercise. Doctors also warn middle-aged, out-of-shape patients about trying to get fit too fast.

The reason: it is believed a sudden burst of exercise, for those who are not used to it, increases the risk of heart attack and death. That said, a new study at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, shows the risk, though real, is very small.

Dr. Christine Albert and other researchers tracked the health and exercise habits of 120,000 middle-aged women for 24 years. Their findings surprised them. "The risk was only one sudden cardiac death per 36.5 million person hours spent exercising," said Dr. Alpert.

"In our study, the women who were not previously exercising, but then did exercise -- that was out of the ordinary for them -- acute bursts of exercise, were at a slightly elevated risk of having sudden cardiac death while they exercised."

Women who exercised four or more hours a week reduced this very small risk by 60 percent.

Furthermore, the research showed the risk was much lower for women than for men.

In an earlier study on men, Dr. Albert and her colleagues found men were 19 times more likely to have a heart attack than were women under similar circumstances, although the risk was still small.

The study showed that exercise helps reduce overall risk of heart attack for both women and men. And even though the risk for heart attack for both sexes is small for sudden bursts of exercise, it is still better to start slowly and gradually increase the intensity.

Footage courtesy of The Journal of The American Medical Association