For those who fear it may be too late in life to improve their fitness and wellness, a recent study published in the journal Circulation has found that people into late middle age can reverse or reduce the risk of heart failure caused by decades of sedentary living by exercising.

There, is, however, a catch: research indicates that it takes two years of aerobic exercise, four to five days a week, to mitigate the risk of heart failure. Research has shown that sedentary behaviors – such as sitting or reclining for long periods of time – increase the risk of heart disease.

The study’s participants, all of whom did not exercise regularly, were divided into two groups, with one following an aerobic exercise routine that progressed in intensity over the two years and another doing yoga, balance training and weight training three times a week, also for two years.

The aerobic exercise group showed an 18% improvement in their maximum oxygen intake during exercise and a more than 25% improvement in “plasticity” in the left ventricular muscle of the heart – both markers of a healthier heart. However, the benefits were not seen in the second group.

Dr Benjamin Levine, lead author of the study and the founder and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, a joint program between Texas Health Resources and UT Southwestern Medical Center Dallas, Texas, states: “The key to a healthier heart in middle age is the right dose of exercise, at the right time in life. We found what we believe to be the optimal dose of the right kind of exercise, which is four to five times a week, and the ‘sweet spot’ in time, when the heart risk from a lifetime of sedentary behavior can be improved – which is late-middle age. The result was a reversal of decades of a sedentary lifestyle on the heart for most of the study participants.”

Dr Richard Siow, vice-dean for the faculty of life sciences and medicine at King’s College London and director of aging research at King’s, told the BBC the study was valuable in that shows we can delay cardiovascular aging. Dr. Siow said that it provided further evidence that “we can, in a way, rejuvenate or make the cells in the heart, and also in the blood vessels for that matter, resemble younger cells through an exercise program”.

“I think that’s a very important take-home message for those of us who may have a doom and gloom view there’s nothing we can do about it. Yes there is, we can start by getting off the couch to have a more active lifestyle.”

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