We lose muscle as we age. It’s normal.
And if heart aging is normal, what do you think happens to the hearts of people who have spent their whole lives living a sedentary lifestyle? Those with little or no physical activity?
Sedentary aging leads to stiffening of the muscle in the heart's left ventricle, the chamber that pumps oxygen-rich blood back out to the body. That’s according to Dr. Benjamin Levine, renowned sports cardiologist and Director of the Institute and Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern.
Dr. Levine is also the senior author of a series of studies that spanned over the past five years that aimed to find out if exercise can restore the heart's elasticity in previously sedentary individuals especially if begun in late middle age.
Together with a team of cardiologists, they came up with a dose of exercise that can reverse damage to sedentary, aging hearts and help prevent risk of future heart failure.
Dr. Levine said that in order to reap the most benefit, the exercise regimen should begin by late middle age (before age 65), when the heart apparently retains some plasticity and ability to remodel itself.
"When the muscle stiffens, you get high pressure and the heart chamber doesn't fill as well with blood. In its most severe form, blood can back up into the lungs. That's when heart failure develops," said Dr. Levine.
The “prescription for life” can be achieved by following an exercise regimen four to five times a week, generally in 30-minute sessions, plus warmup and cool-down:
- One of the weekly sessions included a high-intensity 30-minute workout, such as aerobic interval sessions in which heart rate tops 95% of peak rate for 4 minutes, with 3 minutes of recovery, repeated four times (a so-called "4 x 4").
- Each interval session was followed by a recovery session performed at relatively low intensity.
- One day's session lasted an hour and was of moderate intensity. This could be a fun activity like tennis, aerobic dancing, walking or cycling.
- One or two other sessions were performed each week at a moderate intensity, meaning the participant would break a sweat, be a little short of breath, but still be able to carry on a conversation - the "talk test." In the study, exercise sessions were individually prescribed based on exercise tests and heart rate monitoring.
- One or two weekly strength training sessions using weights or exercise machines were included on a separate day, or after an endurance session.
The result? Well, in simple terms Dr. Levine compared the change in the heart to a stretchy, new rubber band versus one that has gotten stiff sitting in a drawer.
So, what did we learn from all these?
We learned that time and time again, science proves that exercise is one of the best things you can do for yourself, no matter where you are in your age group.
It’s never too late to take care of your body and your heart.