People can prevent the risk of heart failure if they start exercising before the age of 65
Despite years of avoiding the gym, people can still prevent the risk of future heart failure if they do enough exercise in time.
A wide-ranging new study suggests just half an hour’s exercise five times a week can reverse decades of sedentary lifestyle, helping to avoid heart failure – as long as you start before the age of 65.
Researchers found that the heart can recover with four or five exercise sessions a week, which only need to last for about half an hour.
Dr Benjamin Levine, Director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine and Professor of Internal Medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, said: “Based on a series of studies performed by our team over the past five years, this ‘dose’ of exercise has become my prescription for life.
Heart disease remains the biggest killer in the UK, claiming around 165,000 lives a year
The key to a healthier heart in middle age is the right dose of exercise, at the right time in life
“I think people should be able to do this as part of their personal hygiene – just like brushing your teeth and taking a shower.”
In the UK, heart disease remains the biggest killer, claiming around 165,000 lives a year.
Julie Ward, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), gave a cautious welcome to the findings.
She said: “Although interesting, a much larger study is needed to evaluate these findings in specific people who are at risk of developing heart failure.
Moderate exercise improves your health by lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol
“What we do know is that moderate intensity exercise, at any age, can improve your heart health as well as lowering your blood pressure, cholesterol and helping you lose excess weight.
“Just 20 to 30 minutes of exercise per day will make a big difference – anything that increases your heart rate and makes you breathe a little faster will improve your health.”
The new two-year study involved 53 participants, who were divided into two groups.
One received two years of supervised exercise training, while the other participated in yoga and balance training.
The exercise group showed an 18 per cent improvement in their maximum oxygen intake during work-outs, and a 25 per cent improvement in compliance, or elasticity, of the left ventricular muscle of the heart.
Researchers compared the change in the heart to a stretchy, new rubber band compared to one that went stiff sitting in a drawer.
Sedentary ageing can lead to a stiffening of the muscle in the heart’s left ventricle, the chamber that pumps oxygen-rich blood back out to the body.
Dr Levine said: “When the muscle stiffens, you get high pressure and the heart chamber doesn’t fill as well with blood.
Sedentary lifestyles lead to a stiffening of the muscle in the heart’s left ventricle
“In its most severe form, blood can back up into the lungs. That’s when heart failure develops.”
Heart disease can occur in middle-aged people who do not exercise and are unfit, leaving them with small, stiff chambers that cannot pump blood as well.
However, the heart chamber in competitive athletes remains large and elastic, and four to five days of exercise over decades is enough for non-competitive athletes to reap the benefit.
Research has shown substantial improvements in young people after a year of training, but little change if the training was started over the age of 65.
Exercising four to five times a week is an effective way of preventing sedentary heart ageing
Dr Levine said: “The key to a healthier heart in middle age is the right dose of exercise, at the right time in life.
“We found what we believe to be the optimal dose of the right kind of exercise, which is four to five times a week, and the ‘sweet spot’ in time, when the heart risk from a lifetime of sedentary behaviour can be improved – which is late-middle age.
“The result was a reversal of decades of a sedentary lifestyle on the heart for most of the study participants.
“We found that exercising only two or three times a week didn’t do much to protect the heart against ageing.”
But the research team found committed exercise four to five times a week was almost as effective at preventing sedentary heart ageing as the more extreme exercise of elite athletes.
“We’ve also found that the ‘sweet spot’ in life to get off the couch and start exercising is in late-middle age, when the heart still has plasticity,” Dr Levine added.
“That’s my prescription for life, and this study really reinforces that it has quite extraordinary effects on the structure and function of the heart and blood vessels.”
During the research, each participant’s heart rate was monitored during the exercise sessions.
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One or two weekly strength training sessions using weights or exercise machines were included on a separate day, or after an endurance session.
Study participants built up to those levels, beginning with three, half hour, moderate exercise sessions for the first three months and peaked at ten months when two high-intensity aerobic intervals were added.
The new paper was published in the journal Circulation.