Benefits of exercise even bigger than thought, doctor finds
As people age, their hearts naturally lose mass and elasticity.
If you're looking for motivation to start an exercise routine, Dr. Paul Bhella has found it for you.
The JPS Health Network cardiologist was part of a team that conducted nationally recognized research that revealed how a lifelong commitment to physical fitness can preserve heart muscle equal to or even exceeding those of younger, healthy people who do not exercise.
The findings highlight the importance of maintaining regular physical activity during one's life, he said.
"This shows how a lifelong commitment to exercise has multiple beneficial effects on the heart and blood vessels," Bhella said.
Bhella presented the research at the annual scientific meeting of the American College of Cardiology. The study was performed with Texas Health Resources and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
Bhella is the first to acknowledge that telling people that exercise is good for them is no news flash. But this research shows how it benefits them and suggests how much exercise is necessary to achieve those benefits.
Bhella and a team of researchers studied the hearts of people older than 65 who exercised varying amounts in their lifetime, including those who did not do it at all. They also looked at people younger than 35 who were healthy but physically inactive.
As people age, their hearts naturally lose mass and elasticity. That puts older people at higher risk of heart failure.
But MRIs showed that elderly people who exercised consistently in their lifetimes defied that trend. Those who exercised four to five times a week were able to maintain youthful heart mass.
More impressively, those who exercised six to seven times a week not only maintained mass but promoted new mass, even surpassing levels in people ages 25 to 34 who did not exercise.
Similar results were found with heart elasticity, he said.
"If you exercised six to seven times a week throughout your adult life, your heart has the elasticity of when you were a young person," said Bhella, the medical director of the JPS Echocardiography Imaging Lab.
The research group defined exercise as an aerobic activity — walking, jogging, cycling, etc. — and generally longer than 20 minutes.
Bhella and researchers found most of their test group at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas, which recorded their exercise habits for years, he said. Most the people who practiced "lifelong exercise" had been doing so for 20 to 25 years.
So a 40- to 45-year-old can still make a commitment to consistent exercise that will benefit them greatly in their 60s, Bhella said.
"All these people weren't exercisers since they were in high school," he said. "A lot of them were in the 30s and got into a job, we married and wondered, 'What am I doing as far as physical activity?' They made a commitment to change in 30s or early 40s, and clearly it had beneficial effects on the heart."
Dr. Benjamin Levine of the University of Texas-Southwestern said he hopes that the research encourages people to commit to regular exercise.
"You don't need to be an elite, competitive athlete to get these benefits," he said.
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