By Robert Preidt
The study included 40 healthy men, between the ages of 55 and 70, who had no heart disease risk factors. Ten of the men had never exercised for more than two hours a week. The remaining 30 had exercised for at least seven hours a week for more than five years, either beginning before age 30 or after age 40. Their regular exercise involved either cycling or running.
Men who began their "relatively intensive" endurance exercise before age 30 had been doing it for an average of 39 years (since the age of 22), while those who started after age 40 had been doing it for an average of 18 years (since age 48).
Resting heart rates were similar among men in both exercise groups (about 57 to 58 beats per minute), but were much higher among men who didn't exercise (nearly 70 beats per minute). The men in the two exercise groups also had much higher maximum oxygen uptake than those who didn't exercise.
Men in both exercise groups showed similar evidence of exercise-related improvements in heart structure and function, according to the study that was to be presented Friday at the EuroPRevent meeting, in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Research presented at medical meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
"Thus, despite biological changes with age, the heart still seems -- even at the age of 40 -- amenable to modification by endurance training. Starting at the age of 40 does not seem to impair the cardiac benefits," study author David Matelot, of the French Institute of Health and Medical Research, said in a European Society of Cardiology news release.
"However, endurance training is also beneficial for bone density, for muscle mass, for oxidative stress. And these benefits are known to be greater if training was started early in life," he added.
While physical activity can't stop age-related declines in heart structure and function, it can slow them down, Matelot noted.
He said "it's never too late to change your way of life and get more physically active. This will always be beneficial for the heart and well-being. And there's no need for a high level of training for many hours a week. Using the stairs rather than the elevator, or gardening regularly, can also be beneficial."