Hearts Get ‘Younger,’ Even At Middle Age, With Exercise

Did you know that as we age even if we are healthy our hearts start to diminish in its capacity to pump blood like it should because it loses its elasticity and strength? 

Dr. Ben Levine, a sports cardiologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, in Dallas says, “The heart gets smaller — stiffer” as it ages.

Levine compares the heart to a rubber band which if it sits unused after a period of time it becomes dry, even brittle losing all its elasticity.  The heart and blood vessels are similar in that they get stiff without the encouragement of exercise to keep the heart muscles flexible to pump blood throughout the body. 

Levine and his team found that adults in their 40s, 50s and 60s can avert the symptoms of a heart with weakened muscles if they begin to start exercising.

The participants researchers recruited for Levine’s study ranged in age between 45 and 64 years who were healthy but who did not include exercise in their daily  routine.

Participants were segregated into two groups. One group did non-aerobic exercises just three times a week. While the other group was assigned a trainer and did moderate to high-intensity aerobic exercise four or more days a week.

At the end of two years significant improvements in the health of the group that did the higher-intensity exercises was recorded.

“We took these 50-year-old hearts and turned the clock back to 30 or 35-year-old hearts,” says Levine. “And the reason they got so much stronger and fitter,” he says, “was because their hearts could now fill a lot better and pump a lot more blood during exercise.”

Levine says that they saw no change in the hearts of participants who did the non-aerobic exercises.

Levine goes on to explain that the high-intensity exercises involved an old Norwegian ski team workout referred to as 4×4 intervals, where if participants were walking, they would do a burst of intense walking at 95 percent of their maximum ability to do so then slow down to a ‘resting’ walk for four minutes, then do it again. The burst of intense walking forces the heart to function more efficiently and repeating those 4×4 intervals strengthens the heart as well as the circulatory system.

Levine also says if you are in mid-life, you are at good place to start this program because your heart is still flexible and pliable. He said their study put 70 year olds through a similar exercise training program for a year and there were no changes in their heart muscle condition.

Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist and medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center, and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association, says, “Many studies that are done that look at [cardiovascular] health look at improvements in risk factors like high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes,” Goldberg says. “But this study specifically looked at heart function — and how heart function can improve with exercise, which makes Levine’s research important.”

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