Even if you’re overweight, as long as you get and stay physically fit, it’s still possible to ward off heart disease, according to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and reported by HealthDay News.

Experts have long known that increased weight equals increased risk of heart disease. But now findings show that improving fitness or dropping excess weight can slow the development of these heart disease risk factors.

For the study, researchers at the University of South Carolina at Columbia followed 3,148 healthy adults enrolled in the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study. All participants received a minimum of three extensive medical exams from 1979 to 2006. Researchers focused on any of three heart disease risk factors: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or metabolic syndrome. (Metabolic syndrome means you have at least three of the following five signs that raise the risk of diabetes: large waist, high triglycerides, high blood pressure, low “good” cholesterol and high fasting blood sugar.)

Researchers found that participants who maintained or improved fitness over time had a lower risk of developing any of the three risk factors for heart disease (a 24 percent lower risk of high blood pressure, a 38 percent lower risk of metabolic syndrome and a 25 percent lower risk of high cholesterol).

In contrast, those who gained body fat were more apt to develop one of the three risk factors. In fact, gaining weight put participants at 24 percent higher risk of high blood pressure, 52 percent higher risk of metabolic syndrome, and 41 percent higher risk of high “bad” cholesterol.

What’s best, though, is if you lose fat and increase or maintain your fitness level, said study author Duck-chul Lee, a research fellow at the University of South Carolina. Why? Well, because you’ll “have the lowest risk of all three risk factors,” he explained.

Ultimately, the study shows that to maintain heart health it’s important to be fit and maintain a healthy weight. But if you’re not fit and are fat, any success you have in boosting your fitness level and paring off pounds will help.

If you think you shouldn’t be hitting the gym, think again. Many Americans think they are leaner than the numbers show. Click here to learn more.