According to the Arkansas Heart Hospital, within the average human, about 2,000 gallons of blood travel daily through about 60,000 miles of blood vessels. Because of its vastness and essential nature, the cardiovascular system is most prone to disease and a major factor in why cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.
As we age — even if we do so in good health — the heart becomes less flexible and not as efficient in processing oxygen as it used to be. For most people, the first signs of this change begin to show up in their 50s or early 60s. What if you could take this 50 year-old heart and transform it to that of a 30- or 35-year-old merely through exercise?
As reported by NPR, according to recent findings published in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation, cardiologists at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center have demonstrated this possibility. They also discovered that for even a mid-lifer who has not been an avid exerciser, getting in shape now could head off decline and help restore an aging heart.
For the study, researchers recruited individuals between the ages of 45 and 64 who were mostly sedentary but otherwise healthy. Participants in the study were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The first group engaged in a program of non-aerobic exercise such as basic yoga, balance training and weight training. They performed these exercises three times a week. The other group was assigned a trainer and did moderate-to-high intensity aerobic exercise for four or more days a week.
After two years, the group doing the higher-intensity exercise saw dramatic improvements in heart health. Their hearts processed oxygen more efficiently and were notably less stiff. The hearts of those engaged in less intense routines did not change.
A key part of the exercise regimen was interval training; short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by a few minutes of rest.
"It's an old Norwegian ski team workout," Dr. Ben Levine, sports cardiologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center tells NPR. "It means four minutes at 95 percent of your maximal ability, followed by three minutes of active recovery, repeated four times."
The difference between this study and previous heart studies is that it focused specifically on heart function and on how heart function can improve with exercise. It also focused on what researchers call "the sweet spot in life," late middle age when the heart still has plasticity.
Researchers are quick to point out that anyone considering such high intensity workouts should check with a doctor first and ask about individual health issues that might warrant a less intense program initially. It is further pointed out that this initial study is considered a small one and more research is needed.
It is also stressed that there appears to be a time limit during which you are able to reverse the aging of the blood vessels. Researchers also put healthy 70-year-olds through a yearlong exercise program, and nothing changed as to the structure of their heart and blood vessels.
This is not to suggest that exercise does not relate to better health for people as they age. A recent study conducted by Brazil's University of Sao Paulo, shows that exercise training helps improve daily life for obese adults with asthma. Researchers found that patients who exercised had improvements in physical activity and asthma-symptom-free days, as well as declines in depression symptoms and sleep apnea.
"In the past, exercise was seen as harmful to asthmatic patients because they'd have a reaction to the exercise and airways would narrow," senior study author Dr. Celso Carvalho explained to Reuters Health. "However, we've learned that exercise can be good for asthma patients and even better for those who are obese."
The study randomly assigned 55 obese adults with asthma to participate either in a weight-loss program with exercise, including aerobic training and weightlifting, or a weight-loss program that focused on nutrition, psychological therapies and breathing and stretching exercises. Following two sessions per week for three months, people in the weight loss and exercise training group had increased their step count by more than 3,000 steps per day, compared to about 730 steps per day in the group that did not get more strenuous exercise training. In addition, the exercise group had about 15 asthma-symptom-free days per month, on average, compared to about 9 days per month for the control group
"There is a tendency by doctors to rely on pharmacological treatment and neglect non-pharmacological interventions," Carvalho tells Reuters. "This study adds to the body of knowledge that this tendency is incorrect."
According to a recent New York Times report, despite warnings from experts, older people are using more anti-anxiety and sleep medications, putting them at risk of serious side effects and even overdoses. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1999, there were 63 related deaths among those aged 65 and older attributed to drugs primarily used for treating anxiety. Almost 29 percent also involved an opioid. By 2015, these deaths in that age group had jumped to 431, with more than two-thirds involving an opioid.
Even patients taking the drugs exactly as prescribed can unwittingly wind up in this situation, since both sleep problems and chronic pain occur more frequently at older ages. There seems to be little reluctance to fill such prescriptions.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.