elderly couple biking

Why Fit Seniors Have Healthy Hearts

We all know the importance of exercise not only for aesthetics, but for heart and overall physical health. But did you know that maintaining a healthy exercise routine into old age can slow down the aging process?

According to a report from NPR, people in their 70s who have been exercising regularly for decades can maintain the heart, lung and muscle fitness of healthy people 30 years younger.

Exercise Wins, Study Finds

A study conducted at the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University took a look at how exercise affected the health of those who had been active since the 1970s. What researchers found was surprising: 75-year old participants who had exercised regularly for decades had similar cardiovascular health to 40-45-year-olds.

The study divided 70 healthy people into three groups. One group consisted of lifelong exercisers with an average age of 75. These individuals had a history of exercising 4-6 days a week for about 7 hours a week total.

Another group consisted of those who also had an average age of 75, but did not have a structured exercise regimen.

The last group consisted of young exercisers with an average age of 25. These participants had similar exercise regimens as the lifelong exercisers.

To measure cardiovascular health, participants cycled on an indoor bike to determine their VO2 max (maximal oxygen uptake). This measures how much oxygen a person can use during intensive exercise and is a measure of aerobic endurance.

The aerobic profile of muscles was measured by taking a small, pea-sized sample.

The study was relatively small, but the findings were impressive.

Scott Trappe, exercise physiologist and head of the study, said the lifelong exercisers had cardiovascular systems that looked 30 years younger. Trappe notes that this is an impressive feat, as the body’s ability to process oxygen declines by 10% per decade after age 30.

What was even more impressive was that the 75-year-old lifelong exercisers had the same muscles as the 25-year-olds. The results support the idea that aging doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll lose all of your muscle tone.

By the time we reach our mid- to late-50s, some of our heart muscles have already started to atrophy and weaken. Our major cardiac arteries have also started to stiffen. These changes put us at a greater risk of developing heart failure and other health issues.

In another study, researchers wanted to see if this is inevitable no matter how much you exercised.

They looked at four groups of people: those who were sedentary throughout adulthood, those who were casual exercises (worked out 2-3 times for at least 30 minutes), those who worked out 4-5 times per week, those who were categorized as athletes (exercised 5-6 times a week and competed in sports).

After scanning and testing everyone’s hearts, researchers found the following:

  • The sedentary group showed the usual effects of time. Parts of their heart muscles were shrunken and less powerful.
  • Casual exercises saw the same changes.
  • Those who exercised 4-5 times per week and athletes had hearts that functioned like people decades younger.

They also looked at the cardiac arteries of both sedentary and active people. The long-term committed exercisers and athletes still had relatively flexible arteries that were still youthful and healthy compared to the other groups.

Why a Little Exercise is Better Than No Exercise

The results of this study are impressive, but Trappe notes that you don’t have to be a marathon runner or competitive cyclist to get similar results.

Just 30-45 minutes of walking per day will provide a huge benefit, he says. Will you get the same benefits as those who train for competitive performances? No, but you will be in better shape than those who lead sedentary lifestyles.

Unfortunately, sedentary living has become the norm for most Americans. The federal guidelines for exercise recommend 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week, or 1.5 hours of vigorous exercise per week. But 77% of Americans don’t come anywhere close to that amount of exercise.

It’s Never Too Late to Start

Some of you may be wondering whether it’s too late to change your heart and overall physical health. Maybe you’re middle-aged and you haven’t been exercising regularly (or at all). Don’t be discouraged – it’s never too late to start.

In fact, research suggests that you can still remodel your heart substantially by starting an exercise routine in midlife – as long as you exercise enough.

Recent studies from Dr. Levine, published in Circulation, looked at the effects of those who started an exercise routine in midlife. There were two groups: a control group that began stretching and balance training, and a group of sedentary middle-aged adults who started exercising 4-5 times per week.

The exercisers completed at least one session of HIIT (high intensity interval training) per week, while the other sessions were moderate (e.g. jogging or brisk walking) that lasted at least 30 minutes.

The exercisers continued with their routines for two years. At the end of the two years, the exercisers were the fittest they had ever been, while the control group were not.

The heart muscles of the exercisers had changed – they were stronger and less stiff than at the start of the study. Essentially, they had turned back the hands of time and their hearts were actually younger.

But to maintain these results, you would likely have to continue exercising 4-5 times per week for years. That’s why exercise is a life-long commitment, but one that always pays off.

It is easy to get started. Here are some simple exercises that most people can handle with little to no pain.

About the author

Tim Brewer

Tim is a professional caregiver who has helped hundreds of seniors gain back their freedom and independence. He has been actively helping the senior community for 20+ years.

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