If the last time you dropped to the floor and counted off a quick round of push-ups was in your high school gym class, you might want to read this sitting down.
Data suggest that, at least for men, the ability to do push-ups in large quantities is correlated with good cardiovascular health, according to a new study led by researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and published in JAMA Network Open, a journal of the American Medical Association.
Men in the study who could complete more than 40 push-ups had 96 percent fewer issues related to cardiovascular disease, compared with those who finished fewer than 10.
If 40 sounds more like your lifetime allotment of push-ups than a single session, don’t despair.
Even study participants whose push-up counts were in the teens or 20s saw a significant decrease in cardiovascular risk, Dr. Stefanos N. Kales, one of the study’s authors, said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Of course, some athletes would consider 40 push-ups a break between bouts of real exertion.
“To people who exercise a lot, this probably sounds like, ‘Wow, are you kidding?’ ” Kales said.
He stressed that push-up performance was a predictor of cardiovascular health and not necessarily a cause.
“It’s probably not the push-up, per se,” he said. “It’s that the push-up is giving you an indication of what’s going on under the hood.”
The research was intended to help clinicians by demonstrating that a fast, simple test that requires no equipment could help screen patients for cardiovascular risks, Kales said.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all, but it would likely cover a lot of people,” he said. “[There is] no cost, and it could likely be done in about a minute.”
Kales said those looking for cardiovascular benefits shouldn’t immediately lie down and start straining their arms. If your lifestyle is largely sedentary, begin by talking with your doctor about what’s right for you.
“I think it really depends on each person’s starting point and where you are at this moment in time,” Kales said.
Kales’s team analyzed data on 1,100 male Indiana firefighters ages 21 to 66, looking at how many push-ups the men could complete in about one minute during a routine exam.
Researchers then tracked the firefighters for 10 years to record any cardiovascular issues. Over that decade, 37 study participants reported issues related to cardiovascular diseases, which kill more people each year than any other cause, according to the World Health Organization.
Cardiovascular diseases caused 18 million deaths in 2016, the most recent year for which data were available, and accounted for about 31 percent of deaths that year, according to WHO.
Firefighters in the study had an average age just under 40 and a body mass index of 28.7, putting them well into the “overweight” category, according to BMI guidelines from the National Institutes of Health, but slightly below the national average of 29.1 for men.
Dr. Malissa J. Wood, codirector of the Corrigan Women’s Heart Health Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, said the population used in the study limits its ability to be generalized to other groups.
Men’s bodies are different from women’s bodies, she said, and firefighters are more active than the average American.
“I don’t think it’s a great test to do in people who don’t exercise regularly. . . . Forty push-ups for someone who hasn’t been doing them at all is a pretty tall order,” said Wood, who was not involved with the study.
“It takes a lot of aerobic capacity to lift your own body weight . . . that many times,” she said.
She hopes, though, that the study will encourage those who are able to do push-ups to start doing more.
“Push-ups are the best exercise you can do because it uses your arms, your core, your shoulders, your legs to some extent,” Wood said.
Kales said a similar tool could be used to screen other groups, adding that he has observed similar correlations between physical fitness and graduation rates for women studying at Massachusetts police academies.
“Probably the same relationship is true for women, but it may be completely different numbers and maybe even a different type of exercise,” he said.
Kales said the push-up test should be seen as just one tool among many for assessing health risks.
“It’s one snapshot assessment, but the fact that you can do less than 10 push-ups doesn’t necessarily mean you’re at high risk for heart disease. There could be other factors at work,” he said. “And the fact that you can do more than 40 doesn’t mean you’re at low risk.”