January 11, 2024

Counties that have a large number of adults who report not exercising in their free time were found to have significantly higher rates of death from cardiovascular disease, showed a new study led by researchers from Kaiser Permanente Northern California and Massachusetts General Hospital.

The study published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine used annual rates of deaths from cardiovascular disease in 2,900 U.S. counties and county-specific rates of leisure-time physical activity collected in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey.

Jamal Rana, MD, PhD

Jamal Rana, MD, PhD

There were a total of 309.9 million residents in the 2,900 counties included in the study. Between 2011-2019, there were 7.38 million people who died from cardiovascular disease. Overall, low rates of physical activity during leisure time were associated with higher rates of death from cardiovascular disease. Those most at risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, the study found, were middle-aged women and older Black adults.

“Social determinants of health invariably play an important role in our findings,” said senior author Jamal Rana, MD, PhD, an adjunct investigator with the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research and a cardiologist with The Permanente Medical Group. “People living in underserved communities face a myriad of barriers, including lack of infrastructure for safe recreation, erratic work hours, and scarce child support.”

The study also found a correlation between heightened levels of air pollution and leisure-time physical inactivity.

The researchers said their findings underscore the need for policymakers to implement public health interventions that can boost physical activity, especially in high-risk communities.

Shady Abohashem, MD, MPH

Shady Abohashem, MD, MPH

“Despite a national decline in cardiovascular mortality rates in recent years, communities in the U.S. with high proportions of adults lacking leisure-time physical activity continued to experience higher mortality rates,” said lead author Shady Abohashem, MD, MPH, an investigator in cardiovascular medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. “These numbers suggest to us that existing interventions aimed at promoting physical activity may not be effectively reaching communities most in need, underscoring the necessity of more effective strategies.”

The CDC recently reported that 1 in 4 U.S. adults do not engage in leisure-time physical activity. Previous studies have shown that physical activity and exercise are key modifiable factors in reducing the risk of developing or dying from cardiovascular disease. The researchers said their findings lend support to the goals and approaches of the CDC’s Healthy People 2030 initiative, which seeks to lower the percentage of people not engaging in leisure-time physical activity from 25% to 21% by 2030.

Read more from Massachusetts General Hospital.

This story originally appeared in Division of Research Spotlight