Taking the stairs strengthens the heart—Prof. Vetta from UniCamillus University explains why. But watch out for preventive check-ups!

We have already talked about the correlation between heart and nutrition, but heart-friendly lifestyles are not only about eating. Let’s not forget physical activity! It is no coincidence that WHO guidelines advise the adult population to engage in at least 200-250 minutes of moderate physical activity every week. Among the benefits of an active life, cardiovascular health ranks high, also because it is influenced by overweight/obesity, glucose and lipid profile, and metabolic diseases.

Just one recent study showed that climbing at least 5 flights of stairs (about 50 steps) per day can reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, such as stroke and coronary heart disease, by 20%. These, indeed, represent the leading cause of death in Western countries, and Italy is no exception, with its 230,000 deaths per year due to this. 

The study was published in the Atherosclerosis Journal and was conducted by an international team consisting of researchers from the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans (USA), the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Peking University in Beijing (China), the Nuffield Department of Population Health at Oxford University (UK) and other institutes. The study was carried out on data from 450,000 British adults in the UK Biobank.

The researchers correlated lifestyle and the incidence of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and followed the subjects for about 12 years. During this period, about 40,000 cases of coronary heart disease and stroke occurred, and a lower percentage risk emerged in those who reported climbing 50 to 100 steps per day.

‘The results of this study are not at all surprising’, comments Francesco Vetta, Professor of Cardiology at UniCamillus University. ‘Climbing stairs is an aerobic activity, and it is the one most recommended for improving the health of the heart and the body in general’.

Why aerobic? ‘In subjects who do aerobic sports, there is an increase in type IIA and type I muscle fibres, which are the ones that are richer in mitochondria, more vascularised and lead to less insulin resistance’, answers Vetta. Improved insulin resistance, in turn, translates into a better glucose balance, a reduction in bad cholesterol and, therefore, a better lipid balance. Considering that cardiovascular risk factors include sedentariness, diabetes mellitus and dyslipidaemia, it goes without saying that adequate aerobic physical activity reduces this risk’.

But that’s not all: those who exercise also reduce the risk of arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation, which is the most common arrhythmia. ‘Individuals who do aerobic sports are better protected in this respect, because such activities “shape” the heart, making it more resistant’, Vetta continues. It is noted, however, that people over 65 who exercise discontinuously and anaerobically have a 50-fold increased risk of arrhythmias’.

Physical activity improves the heart, but the heart must be checked before engaging in physical activity! ‘Younger people can simply have an electrocardiogram, while older people should have more thorough preventive check-ups’, Vetta recommends. 

On the subject of these checks, Prof. Vetta emphasises how crucial it is to include them in the LEAs (essential levels of care), especially after a certain age. ‘Along with free screenings for oncological diseases, it would be necessary to include others for cardiovascular diseases. The latter are on the increase, especially due to lifespan extension, to which a better quality of life should be associated, as well as active ageing, so as to reduce the risk of disability in the elderly’.

The relationship between physical activity and heart health will be one of the topics addressed at the next National Congress of Geriatrics and Cardiogeriatrics, organised by SIGOT (Italian Society of Hospital and Territorial Geriatrics), to be held in Rome from 22 to 24 May 2024. ‘I am one of the two chairpersons of this important event, and I will be talking about the relationship between physical activity and cardiovascular risk. So yes, one must exercise, but in a controlled way. It is a pleasure as well as a duty to age well, and at the same time to be safe from risks’.