Whatever your risk levels for heart problems — blood pressure, cholesterol, age — a new study confirms what health experts have said for years: Exercise matters.

Better cardio health offered protection — a 50% reduction in the risk of dying early compared to those in poor cardiac health — for 58,818 patients whose medical data was examined as part of the Ford ExercIse Testing Project, or FIT Project, a Henry Ford Hospital study.

It’s believed to be the largest study of its kind in cardiorespiratory fitness, according to its authors.

The records involved those patients who underwent treadmill stress testing between 1991 and 2009 at Henry Ford Health System facilities.

Researchers first compiled results of those tests, which measured how efficiently hearts transport blood and bodies use oxygen as patients walked progressively faster and at steeper inclines.

Then they sifted in other risk factors for cardiovascular disease into the data — variables such as age, gender, cholesterol, race, systolic blood pressure, smoking, blood pressure medication use and diabetes.  That, in turn, categorized the cases into low-, moderate- and high-risk patients.

Finally, researchers layered on the data mortality records.

Across all three risk categories, those with better cardiorespiratory performance had a 50% reduction in risk of dying over those with poor cardio performance in that category, said Steven Keteyian, Henry Ford researcher and study co-author.

Though the deaths would include other causes of death, presumably, many of those would be linked to heart attacks and other cardiac issues, he said.

The message? Get moving, he said.

Even a half-hour of exercise four times a week can make a significant difference in heart health, he said.

“Exercise is the single thing we can do to improve our fitness levels,” he said.  “Are there other factors (in risk of death)?  Sure.  But the one thing that is pliable is exercise levels,” he said.

To be clear, the patients were referred by doctors for treadmill tests, meaning there was concern about their health to begin with, Keteyian said.  But the study also excluded cases with a history of coronary blockage or heart failure.

You can determine your risk of developing heart disease using this risk estimator tool. http://tools.cardiosource.org/ASCVD-Risk-Estimator/