How the right "dose" of exercise can reverse aging-related heart damage

No improvement in heart failure death rates since 1990s

In a new study released in the journal Circulation on Monday, doctors found that as a little as two years of consistent, aerobic exercise can have a dramatic effect on the health of a previously sedentary middle-aged person's heart.

The aerobic exercise group showed an 18% improvement in their maximum oxygen intake during exercise and a more than 25% improvement in "plasticity" in the left ventricular muscle of the heart - both markers of a healthier heart.

Conducted by the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, the study followed middle-aged and baby boomer participants over two years as they partook in regular sessions of aerobic exercise.

Researchers already knew that a lifetime of exercising 4 to 5 days per week helps keep your heart healthy.

To gain the most benefit, you should begin exercising before the age of 65, since the heart still retains the ability to remodel itself, say researchers, and you need to exercise four to five times a week. For most people, the window for rescuing the heart is late middle age, from 55 to about 65 years, when the harmful effects of sedentary behavior can be reversed.

The exercise group committed to a progressive exercise program which monitored participants' recorded heart rates. One of the weekly sessions was a high-intensity workout in which the heart rate topped 95 percent of its peak rate for 4 minutes. Active recovery heart rate is the speed at which the heart beats after exercise. The people in the study gradually increased the amount and length of time they exercised.

Among the adults who had focused on yoga and balance training, the researchers saw no signs of improvement in the heart. There was no change in cardiac stiffness among the controls. Patients with heart disease who participate in yoga as well as aerobic exercise doubled reductions in blood pressure, body mass index, and cholesterol levels when compared to patients who practiced only yoga or aerobic exercise, says a recent report sponsored by the American College of Cardiology.

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Still, according to this study and previous ones that Levine has conducted, there is a time window for taking advantage of resilient heart muscle.

Dr Levine 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.

The researchers found exercising just two-to-three times a week does not significantly protect heart health from aging. But new research finds that there is a sweet spot at late middle age, when committing to exercise four to five days a week can make a critical difference.

"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". People in the intensive exercise group were able to improve the amount of oxygen the heart took in from the blood and consequently distributed to the rest of the body, while those in the balance and flexibility group did not show any improvement.

The recommended exercise regime includes at least one long session a week - such as an hour of tennis, cycling, running, dancing, brisk walking; one high intensity aerobic session; two or three days a week of moderate intensity exercise - where exercisers break a sweat but can still carry on a conversation; and at least one weekly strength training session.

Dr Siow said the study also had ramifications for conditions relating to cognitive decline, such as dementia, because improved heart function facilitates blood flow to the brain. It was also relatively small study and all the participants were willing and able to exercise.

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