It’s never too late to get heart-healthy
IF YOU THOUGHT IT WAS TOO LATE TO IMPROVE YOUR HEART HEALTH ONCE YOU REACH YOUR 40S AND 50S, THINK AGAIN, SAYS SARAH MARINOS
If you’ve spent a large part of your life on the couch nursing the TV remote, or if much of your working day involves sitting at a desk, all is not lost! Because it’s never too late to improve your health – at least when it comes to your heart.
New research has found even after years of sitting down, men and women in middleage can reverse their risk of heart failure
you need to exercise for four to five days a week, every week for your heart to reap the benefits making changes BEFORE YOUR MID-60S CAN IMPROVE HEART HEALTH AND let you ENJOY A FITTER OLD AGE
and perhaps add years to their life. The secret? Regular aerobic exercise – both moderate and high-intensity – on four or more days a week.
The risk of heart disease increases as we get older, particularly once we reach our 40s when the lifetime risk of coronary heart disease becomes one in two for men and one in three for women. One risk factor for heart disease is inactivity – and a recent Ministry of Transport household travel survey shows Kiwis are highly dependent on our cars, as opposed to walking or taking public transport. The survey found 81 per cent of us don’t even walk more than 100m in a day.
“Low fitness in middle age, in people right around the world, is a strong predictor of future risk of heart failure and is associated with increased cardiac stiffness, a potential precursor to heart failure,” explains Dr Erin Howden, a researcher at the Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute.
EXERCISE IS KEY
Latest research from the Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute has found there is a ‘sweet spot’ in mid-life when regular exercise can reverse some of the damage to the heart caused by years of sitting down and being inactive.
The study found mixing moderate physical activity with a weekly session of high-intensity interval training increased heart fitness. It also reduced damaging cardiac stiffness by 25 per cent.
“Think of your heart as a big muscle. If it is not used adequately it becomes smaller and stiffer and this is a precursor to heart failure because the heart isn’t as flexible and doesn’t pump and work as well,” says Howden.
The ‘sweet spot’ for repairing the damage is between 45 and 64 years old.
“Even if you have been sedentary until then, it seems that intervening at this time can improve your heart health because the heart still has plasticity,” says Howden. So, what do you need to do?
The research found that you need to do moderate activity and high-intensity exercise. You also need to exercise for four to five days a week, every week. Do this, and your heart will reap the benefits.
But before you launch into an exercise regime, particularly after being inactive, it’s important to check in with your doctor. You can also get some advice from an exercise physiologist who can create an exercise programme that is safe and effective.
“If you haven’t exercised before, high-intensity interval training can be potentially dangerous so have some expertise around you,” says Josh Tree, a spokesperson for Exercise and Sports Science Australia.
Begin with moderate exercise three times a week for half an hour at a time, says Howden. Moderate activity works your heart at around 40 to 70 per cent of its capacity. You can measure this with a heart monitor or Fitbit, or, as a rule of thumb, you’re exercising at moderate capacity if you are slightly puffed and sweaty but can still hold a conversation.
WORK THOSE MUSCLES
After four to six months, include one one-hour session of moderate-intensity exercise in your weekly programme and introduce a weekly highintensity interval training session, too. You should ultimately aim to exercise on at least four days a week – a high intensity session on one day, an hour-long moderate activity session on a second day, and two or three shorter half-hour moderate exercise sessions on remaining days of the week. Strength training to build muscle mass is also recommended.
“High-intensity exercise is any aerobic activity that exerts the heart level to a maximum of around 95 per cent. It’s vigorous activity,” explains Tree. So it’s exercise that makes you puffed and sweaty and you can’t hold a conversation.
The Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute study used a four by four high-intensity programme – four minutes of vigorous activity followed by three minutes of moderate activity to recover. This sequence was repeated four times.
“This kind of exercise improves cardiovascular fitness and improves how well your body metabolises or breaks down sugars and fats. It lowers blood pressure and people tend to adhere more to this kind of exercise because of the shorter time commitment,” he says.
KEEP AT IT
High-intensity interval training can include jogging for four minutes followed by walking briskly for three minutes and repeating this sequence. It can be rapid cycling for four minutes followed by three minutes of cycling at a medium pace.
“If you exercise on a football field, run across the goal line, walk the sidelines and then run across the goal line and so on,” suggests Tree.
“Or if you are walking and there are hills or steps, walk up and down the steps or hills for four minutes and then walk at a moderate pace for three minutes and repeat four times.”
If you find it hard to stick to an exercise routine, consider using a personal trainer or exercise with a reliable friend who will ensure you get off the couch, because consistency matters. Set yourself some fitness goals too, to keep motivated. Howden says the overwhelmingly positive message is the research shows that any time before your mid-60s, you can improve heart health and enjoy a fitter older age.
“People in mid-life who’ve had a sedentary lifestyle can think that it’s too late to make a difference,” she says.
“But it’s not too late and you could save your life.”