Exercise in middle age can reverse heart effects of sedentary lifestyle


If you're a couch potato anxious about your heart, you can take charge and reverse damage that's already occurred if you begin in time, says a new study by cardiologists at UT Southwestern and Texas Health Resources.

Researchers at the University of Texas said the results were so "extraordinary" that the regime should be "prescribed for life" and become an habitual part of living, in the same way as brushing the teeth. "Regular exercise training may provide protection against the future risk of heart failure with a preserved ejection fraction by preventing the increase in cardiac stiffness attributable to sedentary aging", they concluded.

A fifth of those diagnosed will die within a year, while the majority will be dead within a decade. One to two of the other sessions were longer but of more moderate intensity.

Researchers explain that sedentary behaviors such as sitting or reclining for long periods of time increase the risk of the heart muscle shrinking and stiffening in late-middle age and increases heart failure risk.

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Study participants received either two years of training, including high- and moderate-intensity aerobic exercise four or more days a week (exercise group), or they were assigned to a control group, which engaged in regular yoga, balance training and weight training three times a week for two years.

That leaves two to three days for 30-minute workouts in which you're "breaking a sweat, being a little short of breath but able to carry on a conversation", he says.

Such are the findings of a two-year study conducted by the Dallas-based Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, a collaboration between UT Southwestern Medical Center and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.

For their study, the investigators had randomized 61 middle-aged participants, 52 of whom stayed for 2 years in their exercise training (n=28) or attention control group (n=24). The lungs enrich the blood with oxygen and it travels back to the heart, entering the left atrium. Even for people who may not be able to stick to the complete regimen, some exercise is better than none, and physical activity comes with a variety of benefits for the whole body, not just for the heart-like lowering disease-causing inflammation, for example, and improving blood pressure and blood sugar readings.

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Although results of the study didn't come as a surprise, he says, what did was "how dramatic the effect" of exercise was. In addition, exercise physiologists met participants monthly throughout the intervention as training frequency, duration, and intensity progressed over time. These exercises consist of four sets of 4-minute exercises wherein the heart works at 95 percent of its maximum heart rate, followed by 3 minutes of "active recovery", during which the heart rate is 60-75 percent of its maximum.

LV stiffness (measured as curve fit of the diastolic pressure-volume curve) fell from a constant of 0.072 to 0.051 (P=0.0018), whereas there was no change in the controls (0.0635 to 0.062, P=0.83), the authors reported online in Circulation.

Among the adults who had focused on yoga and balance training, the researchers saw no signs of improvement in the heart. "I recommend that people do four to five days a week of committed exercise as part of their goals in preserving their health", he said. Three times a week wasn't enough.

He suggests a similar program to the one that the participants undertook in the study.

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If you're under 65 and have never exercised, start now.