The Olympics may have provided us with two weeks of fantastic feel-good drama. But with the average age of the athletes being 26, they underlined what so many of us secretly suspect: exercise is really something best started young.
However, it’s not all bad news. A recent study funded by the Medical Research Council and carried out by University College London (along with the Semmelweis University Faculty of Medicine in Hungary and INSERM in France ) has shown that starting regular exercise in middle age can cut the risk of heart disease considerably.
While the link between exercise and heart health has been known for a while, what makes this study of particular interest to those of us in the second act of our lives is the affirmation that it really is never too late. This isn’t just about maintaining your condition but improving it.
For more than a decade, the study followed 4,000 participants who were, on average, 49 years old at its start. Initial levels of inflammation in the body were measured, then again after six and a further five, years.
These levels are important because, even when relatively modest, they lead to such adverse effects of ageing as a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and depression, as well as a loss of muscle power and strength.
Dr Mark Hamer, associate professor of epidemiology and public health at University College and the lead author of the study, says that, for the first time, the research has shown “the long-term effects of leading an active lifestyle on heart disease and inflammation… Previous studies looking at how exercise protects the heart have only been carried out for short periods of time.”
Guidelines of two and a half hours a week of moderate to vigorous physical activity were set by the study. That was defined as activity that raises the heart rate to around 120 beats per minute. What this means in real terms is a brisk walk or swim so that you feel slightly but not uncomfortably breathless, for half an hour five times a week.
The participants who adhered to these guidelines throughout the study had fewer proteins called ‘inflammatory markers’ (whose presence indicates inflammation levels) than those who had only stuck to the guidelines at one point of follow-up or not at all.
One group of participants increased their levels of exercise by a further two and a half hours a week – which is just over 40 minutes every day – and their levels of inflammation were shown to have reduced compared to those whose activity levels had remained stable, suggesting that it really makes sense to be as active as possible whenever you start.
“It contributes to successful ageing,” Dr Hamer says. Indeed – literally – to staying young at heart.