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If you’ve made it to middle age without doing much exercise, your heart probably isn’t in the best shape…
Staying sedentary as you age causes your heart muscle to stiffen, which leads to high blood pressure and prevents the heart’s left ventricle from filling with blood efficiently. If this ventricle gets stiff enough, the blood could eventually back up into the lungs, causing congestive heart failure.
But if you’ve been sedentary for decades, don’t fret. You can prevent and even reverse heart damage if you commit to a simple change today…
That’s right. If you’ve never exercised a day in your life, you can still improve your heart health and live a long and happy life. But the sooner you start, the better… especially if your 65th birthday is right around the corner.
65: The heart health deadline
Cardiologists from University of Texas Southwestern and Texas Health Resources recently learned that middle-aged couch potatoes can still turn their heart health around with a regular exercise regimen.
In fact, these researchers determined that until the age of 65 the heart retains some plasticity, which means it can remodel itself for the better.
During their two-year study, researchers asked study participants to either perform high-intensity exercise regularly or practice yoga and balance training regularly. When all was said and done, the people who did high-intensity exercise improved their maximum oxygen intake during exercise (a sign of cardiovascular and respiratory fitness) by 18 percent and the elasticity of their left ventricular heart muscle by 25 percent.
The doctor who led the study, Dr. Benjamin Levine, said the left ventricular heart muscle went from being like a stiff, unused rubber band that’s been sitting in a drawer to a stretchy, new rubber band… an encouraging sign since a stiff ventricle screws up your heart’s ability to pump blood and sets you up for heart failure.
If you want to turn your left ventricle into a stretchy, new rubber band that can pump blood like nobody’s business, you’re in luck. Dr. Levine and his fellow researchers determined exactly how much exercise you need to do to get your heart health back on track…
A weekly exercise regimen for better heart health
If you’ve been out of the exercise game for decades, it’s best to start slow. In the study, researchers had participants start by doing three, 30-minute, moderate exercise sessions for three months.
But eventually, you should build up to an exercise regimen that includes four to five (usually) 30-minute exercise sessions per week. In addition to those 30 minutes of exercise, you should do a warmup and cool-down every time. Here are some guidelines to follow as you’re creating the exercise regimen that could save your heart and your life:
- Do one 4X4 interval training workout per week. This is a workout where you get your heart rate up to 95 percent of its peak rate for 4 minutes, and then follow that with 3 minutes of recovery. You repeat this sequence four times — hence the name 4X4.
- Generally, you only need to exercise for 30 minutes per day. But researchers suggest you exercise for a full hour one day per week. The good news is, this day you only need to do a moderate intensity exercise… and it should be a type of exercise you enjoy, like tennis, dancing, walking or biking. Just so you know, a moderate intensity exercise is one where you break a sweat and are a little short of breath but can still hold a conversation.
- One or two more of your weekly workouts can be at moderate intensity.
- Make sure to include one or two weekly strength training sessions using weights or exercise machines to build your muscles. You can do this on a separate day or after one of your cardio sessions.
So there you have it — the exact prescription for better heart health at middle age (even if you’ve been a couch potato most of your life). Getting used to this exercise regimen may take some time. But Dr. Levine says a small mindset shift can help you kick into gear: Don’t think of exercise as optional… think of it as daily hygiene for your heart.
“Based on a series of studies performed by our team over the past 5 years, this ‘dose’ of exercise has become my prescription for life,” said senior author Dr. Levine. “I think people should be able to do this as part of their personal hygiene — just like brushing your teeth and taking a shower.”
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