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Starting Exercise Late in Life Can Still Improve Your Heart

Study finds that sedentary middle-aged people who begin a rigorous program can turn back the cardiac clock

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Even if you’re middle-aged and haven’t been exercising, you still may be able to turn the clock back in terms of your heart's health — but be prepared to work for it.

A recent story in the New York Times cited several cardiac studies by a cardiologist and medical professor who found that while our heart muscles tend to atrophy and weaken and our cardiac arteries stiffen as we get into our late 50s, causing higher blood pressure and other risks for health problems, the decline is neither inevitable nor irreversible.

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In the most recent of these studies, Benjamin Levine, M.D., a professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine in Dallas, discovered that the heart can indeed improve in function even among those ages 45 to 64 who don’t hit the gym regularly until later in life.

But the exercise must be regular and intense for the best outcome, Levine cautioned. The healthiest subjects in the test exercised nearly every day for more than 30 minutes, mostly moderately but with at least one session per week of brief but strenuous activity.

The results, Levine told the Times, show that hearts can “retain plasticity” deep into middle age and can change for the positive with vigorous exercise.

“In previously sedentary healthy middle-aged adults,” Levine and colleagues concluded in a research article in Circulation, “two years of exercise training improved maximal oxygen uptake and decreased cardiac stiffness. Regular exercise may provide protection against the future risk of heart failure.”

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