The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Does a family history of chronic disease keep you from being active?

Posted in

Thursday, Feb 28, 2019

How much do you know about your family medical history? For the past several decades, coronary heart disease (CHD), cancer, and diabetes have been three of the leading causes of illness and premature death in the United States. Lifestyle factors, as well as genetics, have a major impact on our risk for developing these serious conditions.

One of the most important lifestyle factors for determining the risk of early disease and death is physical activity. In fact, meeting current aerobic physical activity guidelines* is associated with a marked decrease in the risk of developing and dying from CHD, some cancers, and type 2 diabetes. Despite this well-known fact, less than 50% of U.S. adults meet the minimal public health guidelines for aerobic physical activity, while only 20% meet the guidelines for both aerobic and resistance training.  

Since those with a family history of heart disease, cancer, or diabetes are already at increased risk, researchers thought it was important to determine whether those with a family history were more or less likely to meet aerobic physical activity guidelines than those without a family history.

The sample for this project included 29,513 healthy adults (average age 47) who underwent a comprehensive preventive exam at Cooper Clinic between 1990 and 2010. Approximately 72% were men, and 28% were women. About 59% of the sample was overweight or obese, and 13% were current smokers. 67% of the overall sample met or exceeded aerobic physical activity guidelines. Family history was present in 50% of the sample.  

The results:

  • 74% of patients WITHOUT a family history met or exceeded the physical activity guidelines.
  • 59% of patients WITH a family history met or exceeded the physical activity guidelines.

The overall finding was that those with a family history of heart disease, cancer, and/or diabetes were significantly less likely to meet or exceed the recommended physical activity guidelines compared to those with no family history.

The authors found this ‘alarming’ because those with family history are already at an increased risk of chronic disease. The authors also made the point that unhealthy lifestyle behaviors such as smoking, poor diet, and lack of physical activity are often clustered within families. In other words, much like contagious diseases, these unhealthy behaviors are often ‘spread’ within families.

A major effort must be made to educate those with family history on the important role of regular physical activity in decreasing the odds of following in the footsteps of their diseased family members. So next time your family gets together, bring up the conversation and start learning about your family history of chronic disease. It could help you become more active and break the cycle so you can live #WELLintothefuture.

Shuval, K., et al. (2013). Family history of chronic disease and meeting public health guidelines for physical activity: The Cooper Center Longitudinal Study

*meeting aerobic activity guidelines is defined as 500-1000 MET-minutes per week, while exceeding guidelines is defined as >1000 MET-minutes per week.