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Exercise and Heart Attack Risk: Dispelling Myths

Although it happens rarely, there are cases of fit and relatively young people who have had a heart attack. For example, Jim Fixx, an accomplished distance runner and author of The Complete Book of Running, died of a heart attack at age 52 while running. More recently, 51-year-old “Biggest Loser” fitness trainer Bob Harper had and survived a heart attack while working out in a gym. In both Mr. Fixx’s and Mr. Harper’s cases, medical reports showed a history of cardiovascular problems that led to their heart attacks.

Despite these and other cases of exercise-related heart attack,
research shows that only 5 percent of heart attacks in people aged 35 to 65 years have occurred during exercise


Despite running many miles each week, Mr. Fixx had heart disease that blocked his arteries. In addition to having a family history of heart disease, Mr. Fixx had been a heavy smoker and he had been significantly overweight for many years before he began running. He also was known to have continued eating a diet high in saturated fat despite his devotion to running. He had a high-stress job and he had gone through 2 divorces, stressors which also may have contributed to his heart disease.

The fact is, Mr. Fixx’s heart attack may have been prevented if he had visited his doctor to assess his risk, get necessary treatment, and modify his lifestyle to accommodate his cardiovascular needs. Mr. Fixx could have combined his exercise routine with a diet low in saturated fat and avoided unnecessary stressors. Even though he smoked and had been overweight, Mr. Fixx’s doctor could have recommend screening to evaluate his cardiovascular risk, treat his heart disease, and ensure it was safe for him to exercise.

Bob Harper, on the other hand, has a hereditary condition (dyslipidemia) that results in high levels of a particle (lipoprotein a) in the blood that can cause fatty deposits to build up in and block artery walls sometimes leading to heart attack. Although Mr. Harper was unaware of his condition, regular screening with consideration for his family history may have helped indicate his risk and allowed his doctor to treat his condition and ensure it was safe for him to exercise.

Although it is unusual for people who are fit to have a heart attack,
Mr. Fixx’s and Mr. Harper’s heart attacks emphasize the
importance of screening
as well as balancing healthy lifestyle habits with exercise.

Research shows exercise is not the cause of most heart attacks. In fact, exercise has health benefits that far outweigh the risk of heart attack while exercising.1 But there is no single silver bullet, not even exercise, for preventing heart attack and other health problems. It is the combination of healthy dietary, exercise, and other lifestyle behaviors that can help promote a healthy, long life.2, 3

If you want to know whether you have heart disease and are at risk for a heart attack, call us today at 908-277-8800
to schedule an appointment for
cardiac calcium scoring.


  • Visit your doctor and get screened if you’ve been inactive and want to begin exercising

Ask your doctor what types of exercise are safe for you, especially if you have health issues such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, family or personal history of heart disease/heart attack or if you are overweight/obese. She or he may recommend effective treatment combined with a diet that’s low in saturated fat and moderate exercise such as walking to help you regain and maintain your cardiovascular health

  • Visit your doctor regularly and get screened even if you are an experienced exerciser

Even if you have exercised for years, it’s wise to have regular medical checkups to ensure that it’s safe for you to exercise. Staying on top of bodily changes as you age can help you protect your heart health and overall health

  • Know your risk for heart attack, including:
  • Family history
  • Personal history, including previous or current smoking and previous/current dietary behaviors that may contribute to heart disease
  • Emotional stressors that may contribute to anxiety and/or depression
  • Avoid smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a diet that’s low in saturated fat and rich in vegetables and fruits

    Remember that exercise cannot make up for poor eating habits
  • Be active

    Remember that good eating habits cannot make up for lack of physical fitness. Because it can help you maintain a healthy weight, healthy blood pressure, and healthy blood sugar, regular exercise is one of the most important things you can do to stay healthy2, 3

Call Summit Medical Group doctor today
and ask about screening to evaluate and protect your heart health.

For more information about our full range of cardiology services or to schedule
an appointment with one of our board-certified cardiologists,

call Summit Medical Group Cardiology.


1.     Marijon E, Uy-Evanado A, Reinier K, et al. Sudden cardiac arrest during sports activity in middle age. Circulation. 2015;131(16):1384-1391.

2.     Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical Activity. Physical activity and health. Benefits of physical activity. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/pa-health/index.htm. Accessed January 20, 2018.

3.     Lavie CJ, Milani RV, Marks P, de Gruiter H. Exercise and the heart: risks, benefits, and recommendations for providing exercise prescriptions. Ochsner J. 200;3(4):207-213.