Harvard Women's Health Watch

Regular exercise helps reverse age-related changes in your heart

Moderate workouts on most days of the week may be enough for heart-healing benefits.

Good news: If you’ve spent most of your life as a competitive master athlete who trains more than six days a week (in addition to competitions) your heart probably looks and performs like one that is much younger than its chronological age.

Doesn’t sound like you? Don’t worry, there’s also some good news for the rest of us. Even if you’ve spent more time hanging out than working out over the past few decades, starting an exercise program in middle age might earn you a younger-looking heart too.

A growing body of research suggests that exercise regimens — even relatively moderate ones that start later in life — can not only boost your fitness, but also reverse age-related changes to the heart.

One study, published in the January 2018 issue of Circulation, found that a consistent exercise program was able to improve elasticity in the heart’s left ventricle by 25% in people who stuck with it for two years. This increase in elasticity is important because as you age, your heart muscle, like other muscles in your body, can become stiffer. “Stiffness limits the heart’s ability to keep up with exercise,” says Dr. Malissa Wood, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. The more rigid the heart is, the more limited its ability to pump blood efficiently. So, exercise can not only improve heart function, but also essentially reverse some of the changes that could lead to heart failure later in life.

Workouts lead to benefits

To come to these conclusions, study authors recruited 61 participants from the Dallas Heart Study. They were all sedentary people, in otherwise good health, ages 45 to 64. Researchers divided participants into two groups: one that performed the exercise intervention and a control group that was assigned to perform non-cardiovascular workouts, including yoga along with balance exercises and strength training three times a week.

People in the exercise group were given an individualized training plan that gradually ramped up their activity level over time. Participants started out doing moderate-intensity workouts three times a week and later added additional workouts and some high-intensity exercises to some of those sessions. (A moderate-intensity activity is one where you are working hard enough to carry on a conversation, but not sing. At high intensity, it’s difficult to speak in full sentences.)

By the sixth month of the trial, the exercise group was doing five or six hours of exercise each week, including two sessions that included interval training, which alternates between moderate activity and higher-intensity exercise. This might include walking for a set amount of time and then breaking into a jog for a few minutes before walking again. It is designed to increase the heart rate for short periods of time and has been shown to improve exercise capacity.

While a few people dropped out — 53 of the original 61 participants completed the study — those in the exercise group who stuck with the workouts saw an 18% improvement in fitness, measured by how much oxygen they took in during exercise. Those changes were in addition to the improvements seen in heart elasticity.

Getting started with an exercise plan

If you’ve been sedentary for many years, the findings of this study should serve as an incentive to get moving. To gain the most profound heart benefits, study authors say that ideally you should start a regular exercise program before you turn 65. When you are 45 or 50, you still have good joints, you still have good heart health, and you likely don’t have conditions that make it dangerous for you to start an exercise program, says Dr. Wood.

But even if you’ve missed that window, regular exercise will bring numerous health benefits at any age, she says. Exercise reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease in addition to helping you to manage your weight, blood pressure, and blood sugar. “You are never too old to start exercising,” says Dr. Wood. However, if you are older or have any health conditions, be sure to consult with your doctor before you begin an exercise program, to make sure the workouts you choose are appropriate for your condition.

Even brisk walking 30 minutes four or five days a week is good for your heart, says Dr. Wood.

“You really don’t have to do a lot of exercise to get the benefit,” she says. “It doesn’t take a lot of time, and you don’t need to exert yourself heavily. Moderate-intensity exercise is sufficient.”

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