The link between heart health and exercise has been known for a long time, but a new study recently published in the journal Circulation demonstrates how adopting a regular exercise routine can actually reverse heart damage in middle-aged people who were formerly inactive.
The two-year study followed a group of individuals aged 45 to 64 who changed their lifestyles to include an exercise regimen recommended by the American Heart Association. The research was conducted by the University of Texas' Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine.
Volunteers in the study were assigned an exercise program that included moderate and high-intensity workouts, and some got weight training, balance work and yoga. They all did exercises they chose and that they could stick with.
After two years, the research showed that those who had worked out at least four days per week had healthier hearts and arteries, and were more fit as measured by maximal oxygen uptake.
How exercise strengthens your heart
Your heart needs to be strengthened and conditioned like any other muscle. With regular exercise, your heart can become more efficient over time, which results in lower blood pressure – a key element in managing heart disease.
Physical activity also increases your levels of “good” cholesterol, which can help remove “bad” cholesterol from the arteries and decrease risk of atherosclerosis.
Exercise can also help people quit smoking as well as prevent obesity, diabetes and inflammation – all risk factors for heart disease.
Heart-healthy lifestyle recommendations
While the study in Circulation demonstrates the power of exercise alone, it’s important to consider all controllable factors when assessing heart health. Some of the most dramatic heart health improvements I have witnessed are in patients who participate in the structured diet programs, such as the Ornish Reversal or Pritikin programs at St. Vincent’s HealthCare.
These programs instruct participants how to adopt a lifestyle that includes a heart-healthy diet, regular exercise, stress management and participation in a support group.
In terms of fitness, the American Heart Association recommends that adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise, or 60 to 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, per week.
It’s important to choose workout routines that get your heart pumping – such as running, walking or cycling – but also ones that you will actually stick to. If you hate running or experience any back or joint discomfort due to the repetitive impact, try to find another exercise that better suits you. Diversifying your workout can also keep it fun and reduce the risk of overuse injuries.
Committing to a regular exercise regimen can improve the length and quality of your life, no matter what age you decide to become active. Even if you’ve already experienced a cardiac event, it’s not too late to take control of your heart health.
Dr. Anthony Magnano is a Ponte Vedra resident and cardiac electrophysiologist at St. Vincent’s Medical Center Riverside. For more information on Dr. Magnano and his specialty treating atrial fibrillation, visit AfibJax.com.