Excessive exercise increases risk of arterial plaque buildup in white men

Staying fit through exercise and eating a balanced diet is and has always been the best method for staying healthy. However, a new study suggests this may not be entirely true. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and Kaiser Permanente have found that white men who exercise at high levels are 86 percent more likely to experience plaque buildup in the heart compared to those who exercise at low levels.

While this statement may seem a bit far-fetched, it was exactly what was found when looking at the activity trajectories of 3,175 black and white participants in a multicenter, community based, longitudinal cohort CARDIA study assessing the presence of coronary artery calcification (CAC).


Coronary artery calcification contributes to the stiffness of the arteries supplying the heart and an increased risk of adverse cardiovascular events. This type of plaque is one of the major reasons why heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S.

Following young adults to middle age

The study in question followed participants between the ages of 18 and 30 for over 25 years living in Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago; Minneapolis; and Oakland, California. They were then categorized into three distinct trajectory groups based on physical activity patterns: those exercising below national guidelines, meeting national guidelines, and exercising three-times above national guidelines.

Unexpectedly, the group performing the most exercise was found to be 27 percent more likely than those performing exercise below national guidelines to develop CAC by middle age. Additionally, when accounting for race and gender, white men were found to have the highest risk, being 86 percent more likely to have CAC by the time they become middle-aged.

“Because the study results show a significantly different level of risk between black and white participants based on long-term exercise trajectories, the data provide rationale for further investigation, especially by race, into the other biological mechanisms for CAC risk in people with very high levels of physical activity,” said Deepika Laddu, assistant professor of physical therapy in the UIC College of Applied Health Sciences.

A curious finding that shouldn’t dismiss the importance of exercise


The researchers believe that high levels of exercise could be putting stress on the arteries that lead to this development over time. While no amount of plaque buildup is considered great, they go on to say that this type of plaque may be the more stable kind and less likely to rupture and cause a heart attack. However, this aspect was not evaluated in the conducted study.

This information may be disheartening for avid exercisers, but the researchers state that despite what they have found, it should not discourage anyone from exercising as more investigation is still needed.

Related: 10 foods to help prevent clogged arteries naturally

Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.



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