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If you were born with a high genetic risk of heart disease, you might think you’re powerless to fight it. But a major study suggests you’d be wrong.

The findings say exercise can help everyone reduce heart risks, regardless of their genes.

“People should not just give up on exercise because they have a high genetic risk for heart disease,” said senior researcher Erik Ingelsson, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, in a news release. “… It all ties back to what we have known all along: it’s a mix of genes and environment that influences health.”

An unanswered question

Plenty of previous research has found that exercise typically lowers the risk of heart problems. But until now, not much was known about whether physical fitness has the same benefits for people with a family history of heart disease—an elevated risk that can’t be erased.

To find out, researchers tracked nearly half a million people between the ages of 40 and 69. When the study began, participants had no signs of heart trouble. Researchers evaluated their fitness level and genetic heart risks. Then they followed each person for six years.

Exercising pays off

The results were dramatic. Higher fitness levels were linked to a much lower risk of several heart problems, even in people with a high genetic risk.

For example, people who had the greatest genetic heart risks but were also among the most physically fit had a 49 percent lower chance of developing coronary heart disease than people at risk who were the least fit. They also had a 60 percent lower chance of developing atrial fibrillation, a common kind of irregular heartbeat. Stroke risk was lower too.

This doesn’t mean that exercise eliminates the greater risk from “bad” genes, but it does suggest that staying fit can improve your odds of long-term health in spite of them. Ingelsson said, “It’s basically indicating that you can make some lifestyle changes, be more physically active, and it can make a difference to your long-term health.”

This type of study is only designed to find trends; it’s not able to prove cause and effect. Also, it didn’t identify specific amounts or types of exercise to achieve the heart benefits that were found. More research is needed.

Reaping the benefits

Feeling your best and possibly taking greater control of your heart health are two good reasons to get regular exercise—but they aren’t the only incentives. Exercise benefits your body in many, many ways, and experts keep finding more of them. So, don’t put fitness off!

Here’s a good place to begin: general health guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) call for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. The CDC also recommends strength exercises at least twice a week.

Remember to get your doctor’s okay before starting new fitness activities.

Find fun ways to exercise and do it with friends and you’ll be more likely to stick with it.

Biking? Bowling? Ballroom dancing? Add a comment below and tell us about your favorite ways to stay fit.