A year of exercise in middle age can reverse heart stiffness

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Heart failure happens when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support other organs in your body.

Heart failure is a serious condition, but it does not mean that the heart has stopped beating.

In a study from UT Southwestern, scientists found a year of exercise training helped to preserve or increase the youthful elasticity of the heart muscle among people showing early signs of heart failure.

The study bolsters the idea that “exercise is medicine,” an important shift in approach.

The study focused on a condition called heart failure with preserved ejection fraction, which affects about half of the 6 million people in the United States with heart failure.

Characterized by increasing stiffness of the heart muscle and high pressures inside the heart during exercise, the condition is largely untreatable once established and causes fatigue, excess fluid in the lungs and legs, and shortness of breath.

Previous studies show prolonged exercise training could improve heart elasticity in younger people, but that it had no effect on heart stiffness in people 65 and older.

So, the researchers wondered if committed exercise could improve heart stiffness in healthy, sedentary men and women ages 45 to 64.

The study tested 31 people who showed some thickening of the heart muscle and an increase in blood biomarkers linked to heart failure, even though they had no symptoms such as shortness of breath.

Eleven were assigned to a control group and prescribed a program of yoga, balance and strength training three times a week.

The rest were assigned to an individually tailored exercise regimen of walking, cycling or swimming that built gradually until the participants were doing intensive aerobic interval training for at least 30 minutes at least twice a week, plus two to three moderate-intensity training sessions and one to two strength training sessions each week.

Everyone had a personal trainer or exercise physiologist to monitor their training.

After a year, the team found the people doing the vigorous exercise training showed a strong improvement in measures of cardiac stiffness and cardiorespiratory fitness, compared to no change in the control group.

The results suggest late middle age may be a “sweet spot” for using exercise to prevent heart failure with preserved ejection fraction before the heart gets too stiff.

Researchers can’t determine from the new study whether these people will go on to develop heart failure; larger studies will be needed for that.

In addition, it isn’t easy for people to stick to an exercise program, and the intensive intervention studied may be difficult and expensive to replicate on a large scale.

The team says physical activity, with its profound health benefits, should be woven into our everyday lives.

If you care about heart health, please read studies about a new cause of heart disease, and Aspirin is linked to an increased risk of heart failure.

For more information about heart health, please see recent studies that herbal supplements could harm your heart rhythm, and results showing Vitamin C linked to a lower risk of heart failure.

The study was conducted by Dr. Benjamin Levine et al and published in Circulation.

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