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09 January 2018

Media release

Exercise may reverse heart damage in middle-aged people

Australian researchers say a new study has shown middle-aged people with sedentary lifestyles may reduce or reverse the risk of heart failure associated with years of sitting by participating in two years of regular aerobic exercise.

First author and Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute researcher Dr Erin Howden said participants who stuck to the aerobic exercise regimen had significant improvements in how their body utilised oxygen and had decreased cardiac stiffness after two years, both markers of a healthier heart.

Dr Howden, part of the Baker Institute’s Sports Cardiology and Metabolic and Vascular Physiology laboratories said the result was a reversal of decades of a sedentary lifestyle on the heart for most of the American based study participants.

“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. However, waiting until heart failure develops or older age cements the effects of a sedentary lifestyle and by then it may be  too late to reverse any damage,” she said.

“This study demonstrates that prolonged (2 years) exercise training, initiated in middle age, can forestall the deleterious effects of sedentary aging by reducing cardiac stiffness and increasing fitness.”

Key results:

  • Overall, the committed exercise intervention made people fitter, increasing VO2max 18 per cent. There was no improvement in oxygen uptake in the control group. VO2max is the maximum amount of oxygen used during exercise.
  • The committed exercise program also notably decreased cardiac stiffness. There was no change in cardiac stiffness among the controls.

The study analysed the hearts of 53 middle-aged adults who were healthy but sedentary at the start of the study — meaning they tended to sit most of the time. Study participants received either two years of training, including high- and moderate-intensity aerobic exercise four or more days a week (exercise group), or they were assigned to a control group, which engaged in yoga, balance training and weight training three times a week for two years.

“Sedentary behaviours — such as sitting for long periods of time — increase the likelihood of the heart muscle shrinking and stiffening in late-middle age and increases the risk of developing heart failure,” said Dr Howden.

“We’ve also found that the ‘sweet spot’ in life to get off the couch and start regular exercise is in late-middle age, when the heart still has plasticity and this applies to people right around the world including Australia.”

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For further information or to organise interviews please contact:

Suzana Talevski
T: 03 8532 1240
M: 0439 977 203
E: suzana.talevski@baker.edu.au

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