We’ve all heard that staying active is good for your health, but a new study shows that your physical fitness in your younger years can effect your heart health down the road. In fact, the study showed that poor physical fitness ranks behind only smoking as a leading risk factor for early death.

The researchers looked at the fitness levels of nearly 800 Swedish men at 54 years-old and followed them over 45 years. They found that each increase in a person’s fitness level translated into a 21 percent lower risk of death, according to the study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

Much research has shown that physical activity can decrease your risk of developing heart disease by lowering your cholesterol and blood pressure, according to Geetha F. Pinto, MD, cardiologist and director of the Heart Failure Program at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center.

So, What’s New?

“This study tells us what we do in our younger years has an impact on our future cardiovascular health. Though heart disease usually manifests itself in our later years, the foundation of our cardiovascular health is laid years before. The choices that we make in our younger years make a big difference,” said Dr. Pinto.

Long story short – skipping the gym today could mean bad news for your heart many years down the road.

To keep your heart healthy, Dr. Pinto recommends the following.

  • Regular exercise. 40 minutes of moderate to intense exercise three-to four days per week
  • Starting slow. If you don’t exercise, start by walking 15 minutes a day and build up from there.

“People of all ages, including children, can benefit from exercise. However, the amount of exercise depends on the physical fitness of the person exercising,” said Dr. Pinto.

For elderly patients, she recommends learning strength and balance improving exercises to prevent falling, as well as aerobic exercise.

What’s your heart age? Find out by taking five minutes to complete a FREE online heart risk quiz.