It’s never too late to benefit from exercise—even if it hasn’t been a part of your life for many years.
Physiological aging doesn’t happen at the same rate for all people. People with the same actual age can vary considerably in how well their hearts and bodies respond to exercise.
Generally, however, aging causes the heart muscle to become weaker, and the major blood vessels to become stiffer and less elastic. For many, this starts to happen by the late fifties or early sixties, but it can start earlier for sedentary people.
Eventually, this can lead to breathlessness and other symptoms of heart failure, a condition in which the heart isn’t able to effectively pump blood to the lungs or throughout the body. That’s why it’s important to improve the heart’s elasticity.
Mounting research suggests that even a modest exercise regimen started later in life could reverse these age-related changes.
The Value of Interval Training
In a 2018 study published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, the participants who stuck with a consistent aerobic exercise program for two years improved elasticity in their hearts’ left ventricle by 25 percent.
The study’s authors recruited 61 participants from the Dallas Heart Study, all sedentary people but in good health otherwise. They ranged in age from 45 to 64. The participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first was assigned to perform various kinds of non-aerobic exercise—basic yoga, balance training and weight training—three times a week. The other group did moderate- to high-intensity aerobic exercise under the supervision of a trainer four or more days a week.
Six months in, the aerobic exercise group was working out for five to six hours a week, including two interval training sessions. In these sessions, they would alternate between short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by a few minutes of rest.
After two years, the aerobic exercise group improved its aerobic capacity by 18 percent and reduced the stiffness in their hearts’ left ventricle by 25 percent, while the hearts of those engaged in the non-aerobic exercise did not change.
The interval training was a key reason for the dramatic improvements in heart health, one of the study’s authors said. Increasing heartrate for short periods stresses the heart and forces it to function more efficiently. And repeating the intervals helps strengthen both the heart and circulatory system.
Before you begin an interval training program, consult your cardiologist—especially if you haven’t exercised in a long time or if you plan to significantly increase your exercise intensity. A baseline of four to six weeks of moderate aerobic exercise is needed before starting a high-intensity training program.
Exercising with a Heart Condition
But what if you’ve already been diagnosed with a heart condition? A 2019 study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology found that those who participated in a cardiac rehabilitation program showed improvements in their physical and mental health within weeks.
Over the course of three years, researchers at the University of Burgundy Franche-Comté in France divided 733 people who received a referral to a 25-session cardiac rehab program into three groups according to their age: under 65, 65 to 79, and 80 and older.
While all of the participants improved, those who had the greatest physical impairments at the onset benefitted the most.
It’s long been understood that the older the person, the higher the risk of complications, and the more quickly their physical condition will decline once they’ve been diagnosed with heart disease. But it now appears they have the most to gain from engaging in physical activity on a regular basis. Just be sure to talk to your cardiologist before starting a new exercise program.
How to Get Started
First, always consult with your doctor before you make any changes to your exercise regimen.
For the greatest improvements, start a regular aerobic exercise program before you turn 65. This is the ideal time to start for a few reasons:
- The heart muscle still has plasticity.
- Joints are more likely to be in good shape.
- You’re less likely to have a condition that would prohibit exercise.
The first key to success is starting slow and working up to interval training gradually. Start with a brisk walk four to five times a week. If you feel ready for a new challenge after building that baseline for at least four weeks, begin changing paces during your walk. Aim to hold a high cadence for four minutes, followed by three minutes at a slower pace. Repeat that four to five times.
The other key to maintaining heart health is strength training. Incorporate resistance training into your regimen twice a week to help you maintain muscular strength and your range of motion.