Published on February 27, 2018

Couch potatoes can reverse heart failure risk

“Exercise is medicine,” say the authors of a new study that shows that middle-aged (between 45 and 64 years) couch potatoes may reduce or reverse the risk of heart failure associated with years of sitting by participating in two years of regular aerobic exercise training.

Researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas published their findings in the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation.

The key finding, according to a press release from the American Heart Association, is that two years of exercise training performed for at least 30 minutes, four to five days a week, and including at least one high-intensity interval session per week, resulted in significant improvements in how the body used oxygen and decreased cardiac stiffness, which are both markers of a healthier heart. Aerobic exercises are sustained activities, such as walking, swimming, running and others that strengthen the heart and other muscles and help the body use oxygen effectively, said the Association.

Cardiologist Elissa Thompson, MD, medical director of Cape Cod Healthcare Heart Failure Clinic, endorses the idea of writing yourself a prescription for exercise.

“At least 45 minutes of exercise five times a week is preferred. We recommend doing everything from walking to tai chi – anything that has you moving all four limbs for the purpose of exercise. You can’t just say I cleaned the house, so I exercised today,” said Dr. Thompson. “This is a two-year study; that’s significant. If you are not exercising, it is not too late to get moving and keep moving. This research is just one more reason to start exercising or keep exercising.”

Age-Related Risk Reduced

For the study, Reversing the Cardiac Effects of Sedentary Aging in Middle Age, University of Texas researchers randomly assigned participants to one of two groups — the exercise group or the control group. The control group spent three days a week doing regular balance training, yoga and weight training. Participants were asked to refrain from attending hot yoga classes or completing prolonged endurance activities for two years.

The exercise group undertook a two-year progressive exercise program that included high- and moderate-intensity aerobic exercises four or five days every week. These participants increased the frequency, duration and intensity of their exercise regime over time.

At the end of the study, the results showed that overall, the exercise group became fitter. They increased the amount of energy they used during exercise (measured as the volume of oxygen uptake) by 18 percent. There was also a noticeable reduction in cardiac stiffness. There were no such improvements in the control group.

“The study shows that increased exertion reversed age-related risk,” said Dr. Thompson.

Take some tips from the researchers:

  • Become accustomed to the frequency of training gradually. (Get used to the exercise routine; build up your intensity.)
  • Vary the duration, intensity and type of training over the course of the week so the training is not onerous. (So you can stick to it.)
  • Use a variety of exercise equipment (a stationary cycle ergometer, treadmill, elliptical trainer, etc.) or exercise outdoors (run on trails, cycle, swim) to ensure enjoyment and to avoid overuse injuries.

Watch for local programs that can take you from sedentary to race-ready, such as the Couch to 5K Training Program available through Healthy Parks, Health People Cape Cod. Under the medical direction of Dr. Thompson, Healthy Parks, Healthy People, along with the Cape Cod Healthcare team and the Cape Cod National Seashore staff, stress the benefits of outdoor exercise and even have a “Park Prescription” program that doctors can prescribe for their patients.