If you’ve been sedentary and think it’s hopeless to start exercising at this point, a new study throws a kink in your logic. Research in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation finds that starting exercise in middle age can work to reverse the heart damage that comes from sitting for long periods of time, as many of us do these days. You may have to work a little harder than current recommendations suggest, but not a lot–and you can have fun while you’re doing it.
The researchers studied 52 middle-aged adults (45-64) who had led sedentary lives but were otherwise healthy. They split them into two groups: One half of the participants, the “committed exercise” group, did moderate- and high-intensity exercises as well as resistance training four-five days per week—for instance, this group engaged in a “four-by-four” interval training session per week: four minutes of high-intensity exercise followed by moderate-activity recovery periods. Each routine was tailored to the individual’s health at the outset of the study, and they all worked up to their eventual maximum over several months.
The other group did balance and flexibility training two-three days/week, and were dubbed the “casual” exercise group.
The health of the participants’ hearts was measured throughout the two-year study period. A couple of things changed significantly over this time: the amount of oxygen the body uses during exercise, VO2max, increased by 18%, and the stiffness of the heart muscle decreased. The same changes weren’t seen in the casual exercise group.
The authors urge people to make exercise a part of their regular schedule—even if you’ve been sedentary for many years, it’s likely not too late to reverse it. The study is generally in line with the current exercise recommendations of 150 minutes/week, but adds the bout of more vigorous activity once time per week, which may provide a lot of benefit.
And mixing it up to keep it interesting, and to keep yourself actually doing it, is key. The authors write, “by varying the duration, intensity, and type of training over the course of the week, the training was not onerous and was feasible with excellent adherence to prescribed sessions.”
The main limitation of the study is that participants self-selected, meaning that they all signed up for a fairly significant life change and kept with it—not everyone who’s sedentary wants to make this commitment in real life.
But overall, the study is encouraging since it suggests that starting to exercise relatively late in life can benefit the heart, and even reverse the damage that comes from years of sitting. Being sedentary is a known risk factor for heart disease and for early mortality—so again, the fact that heart health shifted considerably over time may have relevance to long term health for a lot of people.
So now we know the physical benefit is there if we want it. Making the behavior change necessary to go after it may be the trickier part.
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