If You Can't Do This Many Push-Ups, Your Heart Is at Risk, Study Says

It turns out the simple feat of strength can actually predict serious illness.

Some people measure how fit they are by how much weight they can bench press or how fast they can run a mile. But it turns out one very basic exercise might be able to tell you how healthy your most important vital organ is. A study out of Harvard published in the journal JAMA Network Open has found that being able to do a certain number of push-ups can be a reliable way to tell if your heart is at risk of future disease or complications. Read on to see how many you should be able to do, and for more ways physical activity can be a good indicator of your health, check out If You Can't Do This in 90 Seconds, Your Heart Is in Danger, Study Says.

Being able to do more than 10 push-ups in one go indicates a reduced risk of heart disease.

Man doing walk out to push up

The 2019 study, which was conducted by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, examined the heart health of 1,104 active male firefighters with an average age of 40 for a decade, from 2000 and 2010. After researchers tested participants' treadmill tolerance as well as having them complete as many push-ups as they possibly could in one attempt, they followed up with annual health questionnaires and traditional physical exams.

It turned out, the firefighters who could do 11 push-ups or more saw a significant risk reduction; they were 64 percent less likely to develop heart disease than those who maxed out at 10.

But people who can do 40 push-ups in one attempt are much less likely to develop heart disease.

senior couple doing push ups

That being said, the men who could knock out more than 40 push-ups were 96 percent less likely to develop heart disease a decade later than the sub-10 group.

Of the 37 participants who developed heart disease by the conclusion of the study, 36 were never able to log more than 40 in their initial strength test.

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Push-ups are a stronger indicator of your heart health than treadmill exercises.

angioplasty first heart attack medical history

The study authors concluded that the simple exercise was a reliable indicator for developing heart problems in the future, especially when compared with the other exercise tests they measured. "Our findings provide evidence that push-up capacity could be an easy, no-cost method to help assess cardiovascular disease risk in almost any setting," study author Justin Yang, MD, occupational medicine resident in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a statement.

"Surprisingly, push-up capacity was more strongly associated with cardiovascular disease risk than the results of submaximal treadmill tests." And for more on warning signs your body might be giving you, check out If You Have This Issue With Your Eyes, Your Heart Disease Risk Is High.

The findings are proof that weight loss shouldn't be the only goal of exercise.

Girl doing at home exercise with weights

The researchers acknowledged the study's obvious shortcomings: the participants were exclusively male and they were in a relatively active occupation as firefighters instead of a traditional desk job. But one health expert pointed out that the findings can help those trying to get in shape focus on the right kinds of metrics, noting that weight loss shouldn't be the only goal when exercising. "All of the data tells us that if you can be active and do those push-ups or other exercises, the weight doesn't matter unless you're morbidly obese," Robert E. Sallis, MD, a sports medicine specialist at Kaiser Permanente, told WebMD.

If you're looking to start a new routine, Sallis suggests trying "10 minutes a day at first" of an activity such as brisk walking with the goal of eventually building up to 30 minutes a day. "If that's all you can do, I'll take it. Even low doses of exercise provide benefits." And for other ways you can keep your heart healthy, beware that If You Drink This Much Coffee a Day, Your Heart's in Danger, Study Finds.

Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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