Physical activity and exercise training are associated with a lower risk for coronary events. However, cross-sectional studies in middle-aged and older male athletes revealed increased coronary artery calcification (CAC) and atherosclerotic plaques, which were related to the amount and intensity of lifelong exercise. We examined the longitudinal relationship between exercise training characteristics and coronary atherosclerosis.
Middle-aged and older men from the MARC-1 (Measuring Athlete's Risk of Cardiovascular Events 1) study were invited for follow-up in MARC-2 (Measuring Athlete's Risk of Cardiovascular Events 2) study. The prevalence and severity of CAC and plaques were determined by coronary computed tomography angiography. The volume (metabolic equivalent of task [MET] hours/week) and intensity (moderate [3 to 6 MET hours/week]; vigorous [6 to 9 MET hours/week]; and very vigorous [≥9 MET hours/week]) of exercise training were quantified during follow-up. Linear and logistic regression analyses were performed to determine the association between exercise volume/intensity and markers of coronary atherosclerosis.
We included 289 (age, 54 [50 to 60] years [median (Q1 to Q3)]) of the original 318 MARC-1 participants with a follow-up of 6.3±0.5 years (mean±SD). Participants exercised for 41 (25 to 57) MET hours/week during follow-up, of which 0% (0 to 19%) was at moderate intensity, 44% (0 to 84%) was at vigorous intensity, and 34% (0 to 80%) was at very vigorous intensity. Prevalence of CAC and the median CAC score increased from 52% to 71% and 1 (0 to 32) to 31 (0 to 132), respectively. Exercise volume during follow-up was not associated with changes in CAC or plaque. Vigorous intensity exercise (per 10% increase) was associated with a lesser increase in CAC score (β, -0.05 [-0.09 to -0.01]; P=0.02), whereas very vigorous intensity exercise was associated with a greater increase in CAC score (β, 0.05 [0.01 to 0.09] per 10%; P=0.01). Very vigorous exercise was also associated with increased odds of dichotomized plaque progression (adjusted odds ratio [aOR], 1.09 [1.01 to 1.18] per 10% vs 2.04 [0.93 to 4.15] for highest vs lowest very vigorous intensity tertiles, respectively), and specifically with increased calcified plaques (aOR, 1.07 [1.00 to 1.15] per 10% vs 2.09 [1.09 to 4.00] for highest vs lowest tertile, respectively).
Exercise intensity but not volume was associated with progression of coronary atherosclerosis during 6-year follow-up. It is intriguing that very vigorous intensity exercise was associated with greater CAC and calcified plaque progression, whereas vigorous intensity exercise was associated with less CAC progression.