Twenty minutes of daily moderate to vigorous exercise for those over the age of 70 may help ward off heart disease and heart failure later in life, long-term research suggests.
The findings, published in the journal Heart, reinforce the maxim of “better late than never” when it comes to exercise, but also show the earlier on in older age the better, according to a linked editorial.
It is well known that physical activity is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a longer life, irrespective of gender and ethnicity. But until now relatively few studies have looked exclusively at whether exercise in later life can help stave off heart problems in old age.
To plug the gap in knowledge, researchers led by the University of Padua, in Italy, drew on data from the Progetto Veneto Anziani (ProVA), a study of more than 3,000 Italians aged 65 and above.
Researchers tracked heart disease – including heart failure and coronary heart disease – among the participants over two decades, and also monitored their physical activity levels. Moderate physical activity included walking, bowls and fishing, while vigorous physical activity included gardening, gym workouts, cycling, dancing and swimming.
Overall, physical activity was associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease. Further analysis found that at least 20 minutes of exercise every day among people aged 70-75 seemed to provide the greatest benefits. The benefits were more apparent in people in their early 70s compared to those in their late 70s and beyond.
The sharpest reduction in heart disease and heart failure risk was associated with a period of 20-40 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity every day. The protective benefit seemed to reduce as people aged, which “suggests greater cardiovascular benefits might be achieved by improving physical activity earlier in late life”, the researchers said.
This was an observational study, and so can not establish cause. The researchers acknowledged their study relied on participant recall, that activity levels were subjectively assessed, and that no data was available on mid-life physical activity levels, all of which might have influenced cardiovascular risk profiles in late life.
Nevertheless, they concluded: “These results suggest that public health policies should be targeted at promoting or beginning physical activity in mid- and early late life, given a probable greater effectiveness in reducing cardiovascular risks.
“At least 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day should be recommended to achieve the greatest cardiovascular benefits.”
In a linked editorial, academics said the study showed that “movement is medicine”. Dr Enrico Fabris and Dr Gianfranco Sinagra, of the University of Trieste, explained that physical activity helped to improve arterial blood flow and might reduce its stickiness and the formation of blood clots.
“However, the detailed mechanisms by which [physical activity] can reduce the future risk of [cardiovascular disease] remain not fully understood, ”they wrote. “The favorable effect of [physical activity] may be simply explained by its capability of slowing down the atherosclerosis process through a better control of blood pressure, blood glucose level, and lipid profile. ”
The findings show “that ‘movement is medicine’ also in late life”, they said. “Even a small amount of [physical activity] may confer beneficial effects in older people, but if undertaken early rather than late. ”