Overweight and diagnosed with high blood pressure, Ruth McAdams received some sobering news from her doctor a decade ago.
If she didn’t take better care of herself, she was likely to suffer a debilitating — even fatal — stroke.
McAdams, an English professor at Tarrant County College South Campus in Fort Worth, took that advice to heart. Now 57, she exercises six days a week and is 80 pounds lighter.
“I am in the best shape of my life,” said McAdams, whose exercise regimen includes weight training, walking and bike riding.
Newly published research shows that adults need moderate, consistent exercise to prevent their heart muscles from stiffening with age, which can lead to serious health conditions such as high blood pressure and congestive heart failure.
“When you are young, your heart is stretchable and compliant. As we age, if we don’t do any physical activity, the heart becomes stiffer and smaller,” said Dr. Paul Bhella, a researcher and cardiologist at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth. “A heart that doesn’t relax well can’t fill with blood, and that blood can’t get delivered on the next squeeze.”
In an article published last month in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, local researchers found that people who exercised two or three times a week over their adult life didn’t see much advantage over those living a sedentary lifestyle when it came to heart flexibility past age 65.
The study concludes that adults should exercise at least four or five times a week to prevent heart disease, the leading cause of death for both men and women.
About 600,000 people in the U.S. die each year from heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The statistics are pretty staggering. With the baby boomer population aging, the number of people who have heart failure is increasing,” said Bhella, who is also an author of the study. “Prevention is the single most cost-effective way to address problems like this.”
An earlier study found that people over 65 who exercised six or seven times a week had hearts as flexible as a younger person. But Bhella said he and his colleagues wanted to find out whether adults could get similar benefits with less exercise.
Ultimately, the study found that casual exercise doesn’t cut it when it comes to heart health.
“People who exercise two to three times a week didn’t get much advantage over people who weren’t exercising when it comes to the stiffness of the heart. People who exercise four to five times a week enjoyed a lot of the benefits of the people who were exercising six to seven times a week,” Bhella said.
The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, took six years and involved 102 people over age 65 who had no medical problems and were recruited from Dallas-Fort Worth. Much of the research was conducted at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.
Bhella said the findings support the surgeon general’s recommendations that adults engage in moderate to intense exercise of at least 30 minutes a day at least five times a week. Adults can begin regular exercise at any point, but Bhella warned that after age 65, some effects on the heart from the lack of regular exercise are irreversible.
“This is research everyone can take to heart and act on and understand the benefit of. This really applies to everyone,” Bhella said. “It shows again how critical that is to preventing the stiffening of heart that happens with age when you don’t exercise. That stiffening is one of the key ingredients for heart failure.”
Bhella said he wants people to think about their health when facing the various distractions of day-to-day life that could keep them from exercising.
Looking to avoid those traps, McAdams tries to work out before teaching her English class, which focuses entirely on healthful eating.
“If I don’t do it early, early in the morning, I spend all day coming up with all kinds of excuses why I can’t exercise that day,” McAdams said.
Two years ago, Brian Lashley of Fort Worth began running five days with his wife to get into better shape.
“I was overweight and pretty lethargic. It wasn’t pretty,” said Lashley, 40, who now runs half-marathons with his wife.
Lashley said being accountable to a workout partner or a group of friends can keep people from making up excuses for not walking, running or doing other daily exercises.
“It’s a huge difference in my day when I start my day running,” Lashley said. “Most days I get up and I don’t feel like doing it. I’m not real excited about getting out of bed at 5 in the morning, but I always tell my wife afterward that I’m glad I did it.”