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Sedentary time in childhood linked to heart enlargement

A study led by the University of Bristol and the University of Eastern Finland has recently highlighted the critical impact of increased sedentary time from childhood through young adulthood on heart health. According to the experts, light physical activity (LPA) may effectively mitigate the risks associated with heart enlargement. 

The researchers specifically examined left ventricular hypertrophy, a condition characterized by an excessive increase in heart size and mass, which is a precursor to severe health issues in adults including heart attacks, stroke, and premature death.

Sedentary behavior and heart mass

Tracking 1,682 participants from the University of Bristol’s Children of the 90s cohort from age 11 to 24, the scientists found a troubling increase in sedentary behaviors from six hours daily at the outset to nine hours by young adulthood. 

This uptick in inactivity was linked to a 40% increase in heart mass over a seven-year period, indicating significant progression towards heart enlargement, which occurs irrespective of other factors like obesity or high blood pressure.

Physical activity may reverse the damage

However, light physical activity appears to have a protective effect. An average of three to four hours per day of LPA significantly reduced the increase in heart mass by 49% and was associated with enhanced cardiac function. 

While moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) showed a modest 5% increase in heart size, it is largely considered a normal physiological adaptation.

Focus of the research

This study is the largest and longest follow-up involving accelerometer-measured movement behavior and repeated echocardiography assessments globally. 

Participants were equipped with accelerometer devices at ages 11, 15, and 24 to monitor their physical activity, and echocardiography was employed at ages 17 and 24 to assess heart structure and function. 

Complementary analyses of fasting blood samples were also conducted, measuring various health indicators such as cholesterol levels, glucose, insulin, and inflammatory markers.

Sedentary time and heart health

“There is growing evidence that childhood sedentariness is a health threat that needs to be taken seriously. There must be a paradigm shift in how we view childhood sedentariness, as the mounting evidence is pointing at a ticking time bomb,” said study author Andrew Agbaje, an award-winning physician and associate professor of clinical epidemiology and child health at the University of Eastern Finland.

“LPA is an effective antidote to sedentariness. It is easy to accumulate three to four hours of LPA daily. Examples of LPA are outdoor games, playing in the playground, walking a dog, running errands for parents, walking and biking to the shopping mall or to school, taking a stroll in the park, playing in the forest, gardening, casual basketball, soccer, floorball, golf, frisbee, etc. We can encourage children and adolescents to participate in LPA daily for better cardiovascular health.”

Childhood sedentary behavior

Sedentary time during childhood refers to the periods when children are engaged in minimal physical activity, typically involving sitting or lying down, apart from sleeping. This includes activities like watching TV, playing video games, or using other electronic devices. The increase in sedentary behaviors among children is a growing concern, as it is linked to various negative health outcomes.

Extensive sedentary time in children is associated with a higher risk of developing obesity due to the low levels of energy expenditure. It can also impact metabolic health, including increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Beyond physical health, prolonged inactivity may affect mental health, contributing to issues like anxiety and depression.

Moreover, sedentary habits in childhood can interfere with the development of motor skills and social skills, which are typically honed during active play and interaction with peers. There’s also evidence suggesting that excessive screen time can affect cognitive development and academic performance, possibly due to reduced engagement in more stimulating, educationally beneficial activities.

The study is published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.


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