Exercise can reverse damage to sedentary, aging hearts and help prevent risk of future heart failure,if it’s enough exercise, and if it’s begun in time, according to a new study by cardiologists at UT Southwestern and Texas Health Resources.
To reap the most benefit, Dr. Benjamin Levine, senior author of the study, says the exercise regimen should begin by late middle age, while the heart apparently retains some elasticity and ability to remodel itself.
"We can't actually reverse the stiffening and atrophy of the heart muscle and the blood vessels that occur with sedentary aging, but if we get people in late middle age, like in this study, we did 45 to 64 year olds, we can have a remarkably benefit," said Levine.
With age, the heart muscle stiffens and increases the risk of heart failure.
“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 Levine, Director of the Institute and Professor of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern.
The study found that people who exercised four to five times a week reversed the stiffness of their heart.
Two to three times a week was not enough, the researchers found in an earlier study.
“Based on a series of studies performed by our team over the past 5 years, this ‘dose’ of exercise has become my prescription for life,” said Levine. “I think people should be able to do this as part of their personal hygiene - just like brushing your teeth and taking a shower.”
A more youthful heart can lead to a more functional life.
"We aren't just talking about running a race. We are talking about walking your dog, playing with your grandchildren, going out dancing. These are all things that require oxygen," Levine said.