Last week a study was published stating that white men who exercised 3 times the recommendation of 1.5 hours (450 minutes, 7.5 hours) had a higher chance of getting coronary artery calcification (CAC), which is the accumulation of plaque and calcium in the arteries of the heart. You, of course see news headlines such as: “Physically active white men at high risk for plaque buildup in arteries“; “White Men Who Exercise Every Day Have 86 Per Cent Higher Risk of Heart Disease Than Black Men, Study Claims“; “Excessive Exercise May Harm The Heart, Study Suggests “; “Excessive exercise increases risk of arterial plaque buildup in white men“; (and my personal favorite headline about this study): “You can exercise yourself to death, says new study“. People just passing by and reading the title (like most do) may then conclude that “they’re saying not to exercise because of CAC.” No, this is not what they are saying at all.
The Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study is one of the most important studies in the study of coronary heart disease that have been undertaken. It is a sample of men and women, about equal numbers of each race, from Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago, Illinois; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Oakland, California. The study began in 1985-86 and there were follow-up examinations at “1987-1988 (Year 2), 1990-1991 (Year 5), 1992-1993 (Year 7), 1995-1996 (Year 10), 2000-2001 (Year 15), 2005-2006 (Year 20), 2010-2011 (Year 25), and 2015-2016 (Year 30).” The CARDIA website writes:
Data have also been collected on physical measurements such as weight and body composition as well as lifestyle factors such as dietary and exercise patterns, substance use (tobacco and alcohol), behavioral and psychological variables, medical and family history, and other chemistries (e.g., insulin).
So there is a goldmine of information to be gleaned from this data. The study that is getting press in the news uses data from this cohort.
The study is titled 25-Year Physical Activity Trajectories and Development of Subclinical Coronary Artery Disease as Measured by Coronary Artery Calcium by Laddu et al (2017). They studied three cohorts by the amount of time they exercised per week: below requirement, at requirements, or above requirements. It is recommended to exercise at least 150 minutes per week.
There were 3,175 men and women who participated in the CARDIA study between 1985 and 2011 who had CAC data available for 25 years. About 47.4 percent of the sample was black, with 56.6 being women. The cohort “consisted of 18.9% black men, 24.6% white men, 28.6% black women, and 28.0% white women” (Laddu et al, 2017).
Of the three activity levels they studies (below 150 minutes, 150 minutes, and over 150 minutes), they observed that white men who exercised 3 times the weekly recommendation (150 minutes(3)= 450 minutes=7.5 hours) had a higher chance of developing CAC. It’s worth noting that exercise time was self-reported (which is the only way I can see how something like this would work, are you supposed to follow people with a camera every day to see how long they engage in physical activity?).
In regards to the physical activity measurement, Laddu et al (2017) write:
At each of the 8 examinations, self-reported leisure-time PA was ascertained by the interviewer-administered CARDIA Physical Activity History Questionnaire.17 Participants were asked about the frequency of participation in 13 specific categories (8 vigorous intensity and 5 moderate intensity) of recreational sports, exercise, home maintenance, and occupational activities during the previous 12 months. Intensity for each activity was expressed as metabolic equivalents (METs), in which 1 MET is defined as the energy expended at rest, which is approximately equivalent to an oxygen consumption of 3.5 mL per 1 kg of body weight per minute.18Vigorous activities (≥6 METs) included running or jogging; racquet sports; biking; swimming; exercise or dance class; job lifting, carrying, or digging; shoveling or lifting during leisure; and strenuous sports. Moderate-intensity activities (3-5 METs) included nonstrenuous sports, walking and hiking, golfing and bowling, home exercises or calisthenics, and home maintenance or gardening.19 Each activity was scored according to whether it was performed for 1 hour or longer during any 1 month during the past year, the number of months it was performed at that level, and the number of months the activity was performed frequently. Each activity was then assigned an intensity score, ranging from 3 to 8 METs, and a duration threshold (ranging from 2-5 hours per week), above which participation was considered to be frequent.20
This is a good metric; though I would like to see a study that looks at just gym-going activity and death, time spent in the gym strength training/moderate to intense cardio. Nevertheless, white men who reported more physical activity had a higher chance of acquiring CAC. Though I can see people’s recall being hazy, people over/under reporting, etc etc.
White men who exercised 7.5 hours per week were 27 percent more likely to get CAC, whereas blacks who exercised that much were at no greater risk to acquire CAC when compared to whites (7.5 hours of exercise compared to less than 2.5 hours per week). Black women who exercised less than the recommendations had a higher chance of acquiring CAC. The researchers couldn’t ascertain why white men who exercised three times the recommendations had such a higher chance of acquiring CAC by the time they reached middle age, but Dr. Jamal Rana says “however this plaque buildup may well be of the more stable kind, and thus less likely to rupture and causes heart attack, which was not evaluated in this study.” The head author, Dr. Deepika Laddu also reiterated: “it does not suggest that anyone should stop exercising.” So people who just read these click bait headlines who say “They’re telling whites not to exercise!”, you’re wrong and you should read papers and not news articles.
This is the perfect example of people reading click baity, fear-mongering headlines and running with it. I saw some people saying “They’re telling us not to exercise!” No. If you were to read the paper and any serious news articles on the matter, you’d see that they do not recommend that people do not exercise. Now the question is, why do whites who exercise more than 7.5 hours per week have a higher chance of acquiring heart disease? I can think of a few explanations (though they are not satisfactory): 1) genes: which genes? Why? How do they interact with the body over time to lead to arterial calcification?; 2) dietary habits: I’d like to know what their diet was like and see their macro composition, carbohydrates, not saturated fat, causes heart disease (Siri-Tirino et al, 2010; de Souza et al, 2015) so that may be a huge contributing factor.
Nevertheless, this is yet another physiological race difference. Oddly enough, black men are more likely than white men to have hypertension (Hicken et al, 2013).
Even though black men, on average, have higher rates of hypertension than white men, white men who are physically active for 7.5 had a higher chance of acquiring CAC than those who exercised less than 2.5 hours per week. This effect wasn’t seen in black men who had physical activity at that level, which, of course, implies that differences in genes and SES underlie this difference. I await more papers into this matter into the mechanisms of how and why this occurs and will ruminate on this myself in the future. No, this study does not tell white men not to exercise.