Scientists say their findings have important implications for clinical practice and guidelines.
Researchers found that physical activity is not only associated with lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease but the greatest benefit is seen for those who are active at the highest level.
Those who were most active (in the top 25%) had an average reduction in risk of between 48% and 57%, the research suggests.
The scientists from the University of Oxford say their findings have important implications for clinical practice and guidelines on the amount of physical activity that people should aim for.
Associate professor Aiden Doherty, from the University of Oxford’s Nuffield department of population health and one of the lead authors of the study, said: “This is the largest ever study of device-measured physical activity and cardiovascular disease.
“It shows that physical activity is probably even more important for the prevention of cardiovascular disease than we previously thought.
“Our findings lend further weight to the new WHO guidelines on physical activity which recommend at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week for all adults.”
Professor Terry Dwyer, from the University of Oxford’s Nuffield department of women’s and reproductive health and lead author of the study, said: “The results of this study enhance confidence that physical activity is likely to be an important way of preventing cardiovascular disease.
“The potential risk reduction estimated in those engaging in relatively high levels of activity is substantial and justifies a greater emphasis on measures to increase levels of physical activity in the community.”
Researchers used accelerometers (wrist-worn devices) to accurately record the activity of more than 90,000 participants who were followed over five years.
They found that physical activity is not only associated with lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease but the greatest benefit is seen for those who are active at the highest level.
Over the five-year follow up period, 3,617 of the participants were diagnosed with cardiovascular disease – 3,305 non-fatal and 312 fatal.
This included 2,220 men and 1,397 women.
In the participants, as the amount of moderate and vigorous physical activity increased, cases of cardiovascular disease decreased, with no threshold where the effects of exercise stopped improving cardiovascular health.
The protective effect of physical activity against cardiovascular disease was 48%-57% for those in the top quarter of all physical activity, 49%-59% for those in the top quarter of moderate-intensity activity, and 54%-63% for those in the top quarter of vigorous-intensity activity.
The results of the study, published in Plos Medicine, were similar for men and women, although the benefits of vigorous exercise appeared to be particularly strong for women.
While those who exercised more were also more likely to not smoke, to have a healthy BMI and a moderate alcohol intake, the researchers adjusted for these factors and found that the association between increased exercise and a decrease in cardiovascular disease was still strong.
They say these results demonstrate that exercise alone has a significant effect on cardiovascular disease risk.
The study was based on 90,211 healthy participants in the UK Biobank, from across England, Wales, and Scotland.