Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US for both men and women, and it’s estimated that it’s responsible for 25% of all deaths every year. Fitness is a major prevention strategy and can substantially reduce the risks for the public. Many older individuals fear that it’s too late for them to improve their fitness, and it won’t have a major impact. However, a new study has shown that even late into middle age, regular exercise can reduce or even completely reverse the effects of decades of sedentary behaviour.

The study looked at the heart health of adults aged between 45 and 64, who had a history of a lack of exercise but were otherwise healthy. It found that after taking part in physical activity four or five days a week for two years, there was an 18% improvement in oxygen intake and 25% improvement in “plasticity “in the heart. Among individuals who didn’t take up the new exercise routine these improvements weren’t seen.

Dr Benjamin Levine, lead author of the study and the founder and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, a joint programme between Texas Health Resources and UT Southwestern Medical Center Dallas, Texas, 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.”

Dr Levine also added that it’s always recommended that individuals add regular exercise into their routines, as it can drastically reduce the risks of a multitude of diseases and health conditions. He said The result was a reversal of decades of a sedentary lifestyle on the heart for most of the study participants. It’s not something that gets added on to the end of the day: You brush your teeth, you change your clothes, you eat food and drink water. You do these things for personal hygiene. Exercise is equally important. You need to find ways to incorporate it into your daily activities.”

Dr Richard Siow, vice-dean for the faculty of life sciences and medicine at King’s College London noted that this study provides significant evidence that “we can, in a way, rejuvenate or make the cells in the heart, and also in the blood vessels for that matter, resemble younger cells through an exercise programme”. He added “I think that’s a very important take-home message for those of us who may have a doom and gloom view there’s nothing we can do about it. Yes there is, we can start by getting off the couch to have a more active lifestyle. The wider ramifications of this study for healthy ageing need to be explored.”

Although this study provides strong evidence that exercise can be used to balance out some of the negative effects of our increasingly unhealthy lifestyles, the researched pointed out that there were some limitations to the study.  One limitation was that all the participants were able to take part in an intensive course of exercise throughout the two year period, which may not be suitable or financially viable for the general population. Also, the study didn’t take other factors into account including diet, which can also greatly impact cardiovascular health. “It needs to be taken into the context of a healthy lifestyle as well,” Dr Siow added.

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