The incidence of heart failure is the only form of heart disease that has not decreased in over 30 years, with approximately 550,000 new cases diagnosed in the U.S. per year. Technological advancements in cardiac devices and improved prevention and treatment methods have diminished the death rate, but cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death in the country. A growing need to identify the underlying metabolic causes of heart failure has prompted new studies aimed at developing new therapies for patients and addressing the problem at its earliest stage.
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.”