For better late-life heart health, exercise more

May 19, 2014—Sticking to an exercise program after age 65, or boosting the intensity just a touch, could be key for heart attack prevention, according to a study in the journal Circulation.

Why? Because intense exercise seems to help the heart maintain a steady beat during daily life. Researchers call this “heart rate variability,” and that process is improved in those who exercise.

“These small differences are influenced by the health of the heart and the nervous system that regulates the heart,” said Luisa Soares-Miranda, PhD, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health. Changes in heart rate variability may be an early sign of problems with this system and a predictor of future heart attacks, she added.

About the study

The study involved 985 adults who were 65 years of age or older and originally participating in the Cardiovascular Health Study.

Researchers asked these people to wear portable monitors on their bodies, so they could monitor participants’ heartbeats in 24-hour periods over five years.

The researchers then looked at that heartbeat data in relation to the participants’ exercise levels. They measured how much time people spent doing physical activities, as well has how difficult or intense that activity was.

The study revealed that:

  • The more physical activity people engaged in, the better.
  • Participants who increased either the amount of time they spent exercising or the intensity of that exercise had better heart rate variability scores than those who did not.

Researchers said the difference between the highest and lowest levels of physical activity would translate into about an 11 percent decrease in risk for heart attack or sudden cardiac death.

“Any physical activity is better than none, but maintaining or increasing your activity has added heart benefits as you age,” Dr. Soares-Miranda said. “Our results also suggest that these certain beneficial changes that occur may be reduced when physical activity is reduced.”

For more details about the study, visit the Circulation website.

The take-home message
Staying physically active and perhaps even pushing yourself to do a bit more than you usually do—with your doctor’s approval—may lower your risk of having a heart attack as you age. Even if you’re not physically active now, it’s not too late to start.

It’s important for all seniors to talk with a doctor about their exercise ideas. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does offer general exercise guidelines. According to CDC, people 65 years of age and older who are generally fit and have no limiting health conditions should get:

  • At least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking (or 1.25 hours of vigorous aerobic activity, such as running or jogging) each week.
  • At least two weekly muscle-strengthening sessions that target the legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms.

An equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, combined with muscle-strengthening activities, is also acceptable.

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