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Having unhealthy cholesterol numbers, elevated blood pressure or an expanding waistline substantially increases your chances of developing heart disease. But an encouraging new study finds that exercise may slash that risk, even if your other risk factors stay high.

Decades ago, scientists first began linking certain health conditions with heart disease. In the famous Framingham Heart Study, for instance, researchers monitored the health and lifestyles of more than 5,200 adults living in Framingham, Mass., starting in 1948. Using the resulting data, the scientists determined that high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, obesity, age, gender and smoking each had measurable impacts on whether someone would develop cardiovascular disease.

From their findings, the researchers developed the Framingham Risk Score, which calculates the likelihood of someone experiencing a heart attack within the next 10 years, based on his or her health numbers, especially blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The Framingham Risk Score calculator does not ask about physical activity. But many studies, including continuing portions of the Framingham study, have conclusively shown that people who exercise have a smaller risk of developing or dying from heart disease than sedentary people.

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