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Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2011 Jul;36 Suppl 1:S14-32. doi: 10.1139/h11-048.

Evidence-based risk assessment and recommendations for exercise testing and physical activity clearance in apparently healthy individuals.

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Department of Exercise Sciences, Faculty of Physical Education and Health, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada.


Increased physical activity (PA) is associated with improved health and quality of life in the general population. A dose-response effect is evident between increasing levels of PA participation and a lower relative risk for cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. However, there is also clear evidence that PA acutely increases the risk of an adverse cardiovascular (CV) event and sudden cardiac death (SCD) significantly above levels expected at rest. Adverse CV events during PA may be triggered acutely by the physiological stress of exercise. This investigation will review the available literature describing the CV risks of exercise testing and PA participation in apparently healthy individuals. A systematic review of the literature was performed using electronic databases, including Medline, CINAHL, SPORT discus, EMBASE, Cochrane DSR, ACP Journal Club, and DARE; additional relevant articles were hand-picked and the final grouping was used for the review using the AGREE process to assess the impact and quality of the selected articles. Six hundred and sixteen relevant articles were reviewed with 51 being identified as describing adverse CV events during exercise and PA. Data suggests the risks of fatal and nonfatal events during maximal exercise testing in apparently healthy individuals rarely occur (approximately <0.8 per 10 000 tests or 1 per 10 000 h of testing). The incidence of adverse CV events is extremely low during PA of varying types and intensities, with data limited almost exclusively to fatal CV events, as nonfatal events are rarely reported. However, this risk is reduced by 25%-50% in those individuals who have prior experience with increased levels of PA, particularly vigorous PA. Throughout a wide age range, the risk of SCD and nonfatal events during PA remain extremely low (well below 0.01 per 10 000 participant hours), but both increasing age and PA intensity are associated with greater risk. In most cases of exercise-related SCD, undetected pre-existing disease is present and SCD is typically the first clinical event. The risks of an adverse CV event during exercise testing and PA are rare and are outweighed by the health benefits. Given this risk-benefit relationship, the PAR-Q is an appropriate method to identify those at higher risk across a wide age span and should be used in conjunction with appropriate clinical guidelines for guiding individuals towards graduated PA. There are not adequate data to describe the risks of PA in those individuals considered to be at higher risk but without cardiovascular disease.

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