Humans are not programmed to be inactive. The combination of both accelerated sedentary lifestyle and constant food availability disturbs ancient metabolic processes leading to excessive storage of energy in tissue, dyslipidaemia and insulin resistance. As a consequence, the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes, obesity and the metabolic syndrome has increased significantly over the last 30 years. A low level of physical activity and decreased daily energy expenditure contribute to the increased risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality following atherosclerotic vascular damage. Physical inactivity leads to the accumulation of visceral fat and consequently the activation of the oxidative stress/inflammation cascade, which promotes the development of atherosclerosis. Considering physical activity as a ‘natural’ programmed state, it is assumed that it possesses atheroprotective properties. Exercise prevents plaque development and induces the regression of coronary stenosis. Furthermore, experimental studies have revealed that exercise prevents the conversion of plaques into a vulnerable phenotype, thus preventing the appearance of fatal lesions. Exercise promotes atheroprotection possibly by reducing or preventing oxidative stress and inflammation through at least two distinct pathways. Exercise, through laminar shear stress activation, down-regulates endothelial AT1R (angiotensin II type 1 receptor) expression, leading to decreases in NADPH oxidase activity and superoxide anion production, which in turn decreases ROS (reactive oxygen species) generation, and preserves endothelial NO bioavailability and its protective anti-atherogenic effects. Contracting skeletal muscle now emerges as a new organ that releases anti-inflammatory cytokines, such as IL-6 (interleukin-6). IL-6 inhibits TNF-α (tumour necrosis factor-α) production in adipose tissue and macrophages. The down-regulation of TNF-α induced by skeletal-muscle-derived IL-6 may also participate in mediating the atheroprotective effect of physical activity.

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