Fitness, fatness, and coronary heart disease risk in adolescents: the Northern Ireland Young Hearts Project

Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Feb;33(2):270-4. doi: 10.1097/00005768-200102000-00016.


Purpose: The purpose of this study was to examine the independence and relative strengths of association between coronary heart disease (CHD) risk status and both body fatness and cardiorespiratory (C-R) fitness in 12- and 15-yr-old adolescents.

Methods: The study cohort consisted of 1015 schoolchildren aged 12 and 15 yr (251 12-yr-old boys, 258 12-yr-old girls, 252 15-yr-old boys, and 254 15-yr-old girls), representing a 2% random sample of each population group. For each child, height, weight, sexual maturity (pubertal status), skin-fold thicknesses (4 sites), blood pressure (random zero sphygmomanometer), nonfasting serum total, and high density lipoprotein (HDL)-cholesterol and C-R fitness (20-m shuttle run; 20-MST) were determined under standardized conditions. Socioeconomic status and habitual physical activity were also determined from questionnaire information. Multiple regression analyses were carried out to examine relationships between five CHD risk factors, and fitness and fatness and to examine the relative strengths of fitness and fatness on CHD risk status, correcting for potential confounding variables.

Results: Our main findings were: 1) Relationships between fatness and CHD risk factors are invariably stronger than between fitness and the same risk factors. For example, partially adjusted standardized regression coefficients for 12-yr-old boys revealed significant relationships between all five CHD risk factors and fatness, compared with three of five for fitness. The corresponding figures for 12-yr-old girls were three of five (fatness) and one of five (fitness). Broadly similar results were apparent for 15-yr-olds. 2) Although relationships between fitness and CHD risk factors do not survive further adjustment for fatness, the relationships between fatness and CHD risk are more robust and are unaffected by further adjustment for fitness.

Conclusion: Our results indicate that the observed relationships between C-R fitness and CHD risk status in adolescents are mediated by fatness, whereas the observed relationships with fatness are independent of fitness. Primary prevention of CHD during childhood should therefore concentrate upon preventing or reversing undue weight gain.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adipose Tissue*
  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior*
  • Body Composition
  • Child
  • Cohort Studies
  • Coronary Disease / etiology*
  • Female
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Physical Fitness*
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Class