Population-level risks of physical activity: Saving bones and screening hearts

Geoffrey P Whitfield, The University of Texas School of Public Health


Documented risks of physical activity include reduced bone mineral density at high activity volume, and sudden cardiac death among adults and adolescents. Further illumination of these risks is needed to inform future public health guidelines. The present research seeks to 1) quantify the association between physical activity and bone mineral density (BMD) across a broad range of activity volume, 2) assess the utility of an existing pre-screening questionnaire among US adults, and 3) determine if pre-screening risk stratification by questionnaire predicts referral to physician among Texas adolescents. Among 9,468 adults 20 years of age or older in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2007-2010, linear regression analyses revealed generally higher BMD at the lumbar spine and proximal femur with greater reported activity volume. Only lumbar BMD in women was unassociated with activity volume. Among men, BMD was similar at activity beyond four times the minimum volume recommended in the Physical Activity Guidelines. These results suggest that the range of activity reported by US adults is not associated with low BMD at either site. The American Heart Association / American College of Sports Medicine Preparticipation Questionnaire (AAPQ) was applied to 6,661 adults 40 years of age or older from NHANES 2001-2004 by using NHANES responses to complete AAPQ items. Following AAPQ referral criteria, 95.5% of women and 93.5% of men would be referred to a physician before exercise initiation, suggesting little utility for the AAPQ among adults aged 40 years or older. Unnecessary referral before exercise initiation may present a barrier to exercise adoption and may strain an already stressed healthcare infrastructure. Among 3181 athletes in the Texas Adolescent Athlete Heart Screening Registry, 55.2% of boys and 62.2% of girls were classified as high-risk based on questionnaire answers. Using sex-stratified contingency table analyses, risk categories were not significantly associated with referral to physician based on electrocardiogram or echocardiogram, nor were they associated with confirmed diagnoses on follow-up. Additional research is needed to identify which symptoms are most closely related to sudden cardiac death, and determine the best methods for rapid and reliable assessment. In conclusion, this research suggests that the volume of activity reported by US adults is not associated with low BMD at two clinically relevant sites, casts doubts on the utility of two existing cardiac screening tools, and raises concern about barriers to activity erected through ineffective screening. These findings augment existing research in this area that may inform revisions to the Physical Activity Guidelines regarding risk mitigation.

Subject Area

Public health|Kinesiology|Epidemiology

Recommended Citation

Whitfield, Geoffrey P, "Population-level risks of physical activity: Saving bones and screening hearts" (2013). Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). AAI3568305.