Counting push-ups can help predict your risk of heart disease

Make your muscles work.
Make your muscles work.
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su
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Researchers at Harvard University were working with a pretty well-established idea: “Higher fitness levels would be associated with lower rates of incident cardiovascular disease.” Not exactly a groundbreaking observation.

But what was interesting was the reason for their work. What they hoped to figure out was whether there exists an easy, in-person way that doctors could assess heart disease risk in their patients. It turns out, it might be as simple as asking people to do push-ups, according to a new study published Feb. 15 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

As part of their research, the scientists followed 1,104 firefighters from 10 Indiana-based fire departments for a decade. When the fire fighters would see the their local doctors for routine check-ups, they were also checked for the number of pushups they could complete.

A physician would pull out a metronome and set it at 80 beats per minute. Then the firefighters would be counted for the number of pushups they could complete until they reached 80, missed three or more beats, or stopped entirely because of exhaustion.

Over the 10 years, the researchers reported noticing significantly fewer signs of heart disease-related issues among the firefighters who could complete a greater number of pushups. Among the people who could complete more than 40, there was a 96% reduction in the cardiovascular disease incidents compared to those who could complete fewer than 10.

“The push-up examination requires no special equipment, is low cost or no cost, can easily be performed in almost any setting within two minutes, and provides an objective estimate of functional status,” the researchers wrote in the study. “It is a quantitative measurement that is easily understood by both the clinician and the patient.”

And it’s a lot simpler than some of the methods currently used by physicians to assess a person’s physical fitness. Doctors today sometimes use what’s called a “treadmill test,” in which patients are asked to run on a treadmill until their heart rate reaches a certain level. It’s time consuming and also requires the doctor have an expensive piece of workout equipment on hand. For those reasons such tests aren’t routine.

But as the researchers point out, making such tests routine can be helpful, as heart disease—and the complications related to it, such as hypertension and diabetes—is the leading cause of death worldwide, according to the American Heart Association. Ultimately, a pushup exam is merely a tool, not a certain way on its own, to determine someone’s overall heart health. But it could be an easy way for anyone to more routinely measure physical fitness.