New Research Shows How Exercise Prevents Heart Disease

Exercise is good for your health, and especially your heart. And a healthy heart is incredibly important because cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide. We’re more likely to develop these diseases as we age, in part because our hearts tend to become less efficient, but exactly how exercise prevents this has been a bit of a mystery—until now.

New Evidence
Recently, a team of researchers at UT Southwestern and Texas Health studied the effects of exercise in a group of middle-aged men (ages 48 to 58) who previously didn’t exercise. Over a two-year period, the researchers had the subjects perform 30 to 60 minutes of high-intensity interval training, moderate intensity exercise, or strength training with weights four to five times per week. (In case you’re interested, “high intensity” means exhausted to the point that you cannot carry on a conversation, whereas “moderate” means you can talk while exercising.) Before and after the study period, the researchers examined the subjects’ hearts using a technique called echocardiography (ultrasound measurements). They found that exercise caused an approximate 4% reduction in the stiffness of the heart. That percentage might not sound like much, but having a more elastic heart means it’s easier to pump blood throughout the body, causing less overall strain on the heart—and this really adds up over a lifetime. Plus, this study actually shows that it’s possible to reverse the effects of aging on the heart!

So What?
This new study shows that if you have a family history of heart disease or just want to improve your heart health, integrated exercise sessions at different intensities can make a big difference. What exactly should you do? Well, the American Heart Association offers guidelines for exercise, and you might notice that what they recommend isn’t that much—even walking the dog counts! You could also eat a heart healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, to help decrease heart disease risk factors and increase your chances for longevity.

Elizabeth Wilhoite

Elizabeth Wilhoite is an intern with the Healthy Aging Project, and a student in the Integrative Physiology Department at the University of Colorado Boulder.