Category: Exercise

A Younger Heart for Seniors with Exercise

While it has long been known that exercise is critical for sustained heart health, recent research indicates that lifelong exercise habits may help maintain strength and longevity into old age. A study at the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, spearheaded by exercise physiologist Scott Trappe, investigated a new population of ‘lifelong exercisers’ in an effort to prove that exercising regularly for many decades can essentially halt the aging process–and maintain the muscle, heart, and lung fitness of those at least three decades younger.

An article published in NPR cited Trappe’s initial interest in exploring effects subsequent to “the running and aerobic boom of the 1970s,” and the fact that large numbers of septuagenarians have continued regular exercise for the past five decades: “We were interested in basically two questions: One, what was their cardiovascular health? And two, what was their skeletal muscle health?”

Trappe’s findings confirmed that people who engage in regular exercise each year have better overall health than those who do not; the men and women—in their 70s—had similar cardiovascular health to people in their 40s. Trappe states that the ‘take-home message’ is the importance of exercise.

The study divided healthy participants into three groups: a lifelong exercise group of primarily 75-year-olds; a group of participants that were, on average, also 75 but did not engage in a ‘structured exercise regimen;’ and individuals termed ‘young exercisers’ that exercised with the same regularity and frequency as the lifelong exercisers. The participants were evaluated and assessed at Ball State University’s Human Performance Laboratory, and while the study was small, researchers analyzed a series of markers related to cardiovascular health: including cycling on an indoor bike to gauge VO2 max (maximal oxygen uptake: “the measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen one can utilize during vigorous exercise, and an indicator of aerobic endurance”), a cycling test with a breathing mouthpiece to measure oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, and samples taken via biopsy to measure aerobic profiles–which were then examined in a lab.

The findings, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, confirm that lifelong exercise yields a significant benefit for not only cardiovascular wellbeing, but also muscular health. Trappe states that “lifelong exercisers had a cardiovascular system that looked 30 years younger,” even more significant because the average adult loses the ability to process oxygen by a factor of approximately 10 percent per decade after age 30. “It’s kind of a slow decay over time…but people can get out of breath more easily and may have difficulty pushing themselves physically.” Moreover, the age-related reduction in VO2 max has a direct correlation with an increased risk of chronic diseases & disorders: mitigated and lessened by a strong lung and heart system. The findings surrounding muscle health are additionally noteworthy, as data showed that the 75-year-old muscles were comparable to the muscles of the 25-year-old participants.

While federally published guidelines recommend “two hours and 30 minutes of moderate exercise a week, or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous exercise per week,” 77 percent of Americans do not exercise sufficiently. Dr. Clyde Yancy, CMHC Chairperson, chief of cardiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and spokesperson for the American Heart Association, states that the findings

Dr. Clyde Yancy, spokesperson for the American Heart Association and chief of cardiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, says the findings show that “a lifelong investment in health and fitness appears to be associated with a really sustainable benefit out until the outer limits of life.”


The Importance of Cardiac Stress Testing

Exercise stress tests demonstrate how the heart works during physical activity & stress. Because exercise makes the heart pump both harder and faster, exercise stress tests—or cardiac stress testing—can ultimately reveal problems with the heart’s blood flow. Designed to determine if one or more of the coronary arteries feeding the heart contain fatty deposits, or plaques, that block a blood vessel more than 70%, the tests can prove highly valuable for patients that exhibit specific risk factors and features. Stress tests can also detect any abnormal changes in heart rate or blood pressure, symptoms including shortness of breath or chest pain, and abnormal changes in the heart’s rhythm or electrical activity.

Dr. Deepak Bhatt, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, chief of cardiology for the VA Boston Healthcare System, and CMHC faculty member, provides insight into what an exercise stress test can reveal about the heart: asserting that the procedure can play a critical role in diagnosing alarming symptoms like chest pain, particularly in populations with higher risk factors for heart disease. Dr. Bhatt states, “An exercise stress test is not 100% accurate—no medical test is…but it helps decide what the next step should be.”

How does a stress test work?

During a stress test, you walk on a treadmill or pedal on a stationary bicycle as an electrocardiogram (EKG) monitors the heart’s electrical rhythms through electrodes on the chest, legs, and arms; the electrodes have wires that record the electrical signals triggered by heartbeats. A cuff on the arm checks blood pressure during the test, and you are often asked to breathe into a tube to show how effectively you can breathe during exercise. As the test progresses, the exercise becomes more difficult—and you continue to exercise until your heart rate has reached a set target, or you develop symptoms that do not allow you to continue.

What information can doctors glean from a stress test?

Abnormal stress tests can point to a higher risk of coronary artery disease (CAD) for men with symptoms like chest pain during activity, or unexplained shortness of breath. Stress tests can become particularly worrisome for populations with higher risk factors including increased cholesterol, older age, and being overweight or obese. Yet Dr. Bhatt reinforces that a “normal” stress test cannot rule out the chance that a plaque will later rupture and block an artery, given that stress testing detects arteries that are severely narrowed: 70% or more, which is what causes initial symptoms. Heart attacks often occur from lesser blockages that ultimately rupture and form clots.

When should people consider stress tests?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel that makes general recommendations to physicians, counsels clinicians not to routinely offer exercise stress testing to patients without symptoms of strong risk factors for CAD, and physician groups including the American College of Cardiology support this guidance. Dr. Bhatt states that “the guidelines leave a lot to physician judgement, because we’re sometimes in a gray zone where we don’t really know what’s the ‘right’ thing to do for everyone.” Moreover, if you have recently been diagnosed with coronary heart disease (CHD) or experienced a heart attack, stress tests can indicate whether or not an exercise program would be harmful.