Baby Boomers: Turn Back the Clock on Your Heart 20 Years with Exercise

I’m loving this latest report. According to a small study, even if you’ve been pretty much a couch potato for most your life, it’s not too late. You can still get in shape now in late middle-age and help your heart function as if it were 20 years younger.

exercise late middle ageThe study published in the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation, looked at healthy but sedentary people between the ages of 45 and 64.

Individuals were put into two different groups. The first group participated in a program of non-aerobic exercise such as yoga, balance training, and weight training three times a week. The second group, did moderate- to high-intensity aerobic exercise for four or more days a week.

After two years, the group engaging in the higher-intensity exercise saw a dramatic improvement in the function of their hearts.

“We took these 50-year-old hearts and turned the clock back to 30- or 35-year-old hearts,” said Dr. Ben Levine, a sports cardiologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. “Their hearts processed oxygen more efficiently and were notably less stiff.”

Sorry, but walking the dog around the block a couple days a week doesn’t seem to do the trick. Of course, any kind of exercise is better than nothing at all, but if you want to turn the clock back on your heart, a bit more is needed.  A key part of the effective exercise regimen was interval training — short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by a few minutes of recovery.

The researchers eased the exercise group into its routine with three, 30-minute, moderate exercise sessions a week for the first three months and built up to a regular set of workouts that peaked at 10 months and included:

  • Two days of high-intensity intervals: four minutes at 95 percent of a person’s maximum ability (for example, running at a brisk pace or pedaling fast against resistance), followed by three minutes of active recovery (jogging slower, walking briskly, or pedaling slower), repeated four times.
  • One day of an hour-long moderate-intensity exercise that raised the heart rate and the participant enjoyed like dancing, tennis, swimming, cycling, or a brisk walk.
  • One or two days of 30-minute sessions of moderate-intensity exercise, meaning the participant would break a sweat, be a little short of breath, but still be able to carry on a conversation.
  • One or two weekly strength training sessions using weights or exercise machines either on a separate day or after an exercise session.

The participants were encouraged to use diversification with lots of different exercise equipment (stationary bikes, treadmills, elliptical trainers) and engage in outdoor exercises (jogging and cycling) to keep themselves motivated and interested, Levine said.

The intense workout was important, Levine emphasized, even if it was just once a week. Pushing as hard as you can for four minutes stresses the heart, he explained, and forces it to function more efficiently. Repeating the intervals helps strengthen both the heart and the circulatory system.

Another benefit? “It breaks up the monotony of just the walking,” he said. “Most people really enjoy the high intensity work. You would think that they wouldn’t but they like the fact that it’s short and they like the fact that they feel stronger afterwards.”

The participants tracked their heart rate, which is ideal. But as an alternative, use the simple talk test. During the high-intensity intervals, you should be working hard enough and breathing heavy enough that you can’t talk comfortably in long sentences.

Don’t wait too long, Levine warned. “The sweet spot in life to get off the couch and start exercising is in late middle-age when the heart still has plasticity,” Levine said. You may not be able to reverse the aging of your heart if you wait until after 70 to begin.

But you’ll still see benefits from exercising. A research team at Tufts University found that frail people as old as 89 could tolerate an exercise regime that included walking, leg lifts, and stretching. The participants may not have turned back the clock on their hearts, but they improved in ways that could make a big difference. Exercising helped them maintain their mobility and decreased their chances of becoming physically disabled.

“You are never too old, or never too weak, or never too impaired [to benefit from a physical activity program],” said Roger Fielding of Tufts, who led the study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Of course, before starting any strenuous exercise program, be sure and check with your doctor. Then get off that couch and start moving!


Julie A. Gorges is the author of two young adult novels, Just Call Me Goody Two Shoes and Time to Cast Away and co-author of Residential Steel Design and Construction published by McGraw Hill. In addition, hundreds of her articles and short stories have been published in national and regional magazines, and she received three journalism awards from the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association while working as a newspaper reporter. Julie currently lives in southern California with her husband, Scott, and has two grown children and three grandchildren.

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13 Responses

  1. I wish I could afford to have someone figure out the timing and set it all up for me, then maybe I’d get the hang of it enough to do it. Also trying to find something I enjoy doing that’s strenuous enough. I haven’t been able to find anything since I quit fencing. I fenced from 2001 to 2006 but my club went from doing it for the sheer fun of it to wanting to compete in tournaments, which I had no interest in.

    I walk briskly around the inside of my house three times a day for 10 mins. each time. At least it’s a start.

    • juliegorges says:

      I agree, the trick is finding something you enjoy doing so you stick with it. That’s a shame that fencing got all competitive for you. I wouldn’t like that either. Myself, I live near a beautiful park with a city gym in it. When the weather is nice, I enjoy walking 2 miles (I’m just starting to add a tiny bit of jogging to the route trying to work my way up) and then do the weights afterwards in the gym a couple times a week. They also have a racquetball court – me and hubby try to play once a week. Plus, walking the dog most evenings. When summer hits, sometimes I end up walking around the house in 10 minute stints like you. As you said, better than nothing! But after reading the study, I too am looking at ways I can get my heart rate up.

  2. Great study! I believe in walking every day—a brisk walk, especially outside, will give you all of the benefits you need. I do get that some people don’t have the access to a walking space, especially when there is snow or lack of safety, but mall walking or even going up and down condo stairs works too. Anything to keep moving!

  3. Great motivating article Julie. I try to walk at least 4-5 times a week. It is a 51/2 Km (about 31/2 miles) walk around our block through bush reserve and up some very steep hills. When I first started I struggled, but now I can power up the hills (as long as it’s not too hot). Couldn’t hold a conversation either before, but now I can, depending on how hard I push myself. The only thing that slows me down is stopping to watch the wildlife, kangaroos, echidna and all the birds. When I’m in PNG I’ll have to use the gym as it’s not safe to walk outside.

  4. James Milson says:

    Physical limitations prevent me from participating in vigorous or extended exercise efforts, so found this new information very interesting. I have been breaking exercise efforts down into shorter, five-minute periods several times a day already on my own simply because that is what I could do, so then found this new study reassuring and thought it might be helpful or interesting for your future blog use, too.

  5. Cat Michaels says:

    Call me crazy, but I love working out. I feel so much better physically and emotionally when I do. However, I need to change up my routines and try different classes, strategies. The guidelines you posted help a ton. My gym also offers a free, hour-long session with a trainer each year on my birthday, so I get an extra push each spring.

    • juliegorges says:

      I’m with you. As I’ve gotten older, exercise has become more important and I also feel better physically and emotionally. I’m trying to put the advice in the article to use. I’m adding short stints of jogging on my walks. My heart pounded like crazy and I was out of breathe at first but am slowly seeing improvement.

  6. Walking is my favorite exercise. We have a treadmill which I need to use more of. Walking outside is the best of course. Hoping our weather straightens up soon. 🙂

    Great post Julie. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Tracy bryan says:

    This is fabulous news Julie! I totally agree that midlife is a great time to start exercise. My inlaws started bicycle trips all over The world when they were in their late forties. Then Started taking trips with the whole family… a fantastic way to spent quality family time and get a little exercise to burn off all the incredible meals. It caught on to all of us and we all plan trips together and by ourselves. The cycling can be easy to intense and such a neat way to see the world-totally different perspective type of travel. I highly recommend they aren’t cheap but so ideal for baby boomers (most people on these trips) and for all ages- even young kids!

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