Doctors write exercise prescription to repair a damaged heart

08 January 2018 - 13:13 By Dave Chambers
Benjamin Levine, of the University of Texas, says exercising four or five times a week can reverse damage to ageing hearts.
Benjamin Levine, of the University of Texas, says exercising four or five times a week can reverse damage to ageing hearts.
Image: University of Texas

If your new year resolution to “exercise and get fit” has already fallen by the wayside‚ a team of US cardiologists can help.

They have come up with an exercise “prescription” which reverses damage to ageing hearts.

“Based on a series of studies performed by our team over the past five years‚ this ‘dose’ of exercise has become my prescription for life‚” said Benjamin Levine‚ director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at the University of Texas.

“People should be able to do this as part of their personal hygiene — just like brushing your teeth and taking a shower.”

The regimen involves exercising four to five times a week‚ generally in 30-minute sessions‚ plus time to warm up and cool down:

- One of the weekly sessions included a high-intensity 30-minute workout‚ such as aerobic interval sessions in which heart rate tops 95% of peak rate for four minutes‚ with three minutes of recovery‚ repeated four times (a so-called “4x4”).

- Each interval session was followed by a recovery session performed at relatively low intensity.

- One day's session lasted an hour and was of moderate intensity. Levine said it could be tennis‚ aerobic dancing‚ walking or cycling.

- One or two other sessions were performed each week at a moderate intensity‚ 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 were included on a separate day‚ or after an endurance session.

Study participants built up to those levels‚ beginning with three‚ 30-minute‚ moderate exercise sessions for the first three months and peaking at 10 months when two high-intensity aerobic intervals were added.

The 50-plus participants in the study‚ aged between 45 and 64‚ were divided into two groups. One received two years of supervised exercise training and the other participated in yoga and balance training.

At the end of the two-year study‚ those who had exercised showed an 18% improvement in their maximum oxygen intake during exercise and a more than 25% improvement in elasticity of the left ventricular muscle of the heart. Levine compared the change in the heart to a stretchy‚ new rubber band versus one that has become stiff while sitting in a drawer.

Sedentary ageing can lead to a stiffening of the muscle in the left ventricle‚ the chamber that pumps oxygen-rich blood back out to the body‚ he explained.

“When the muscle stiffens‚ you get high pressure and the heart chamber doesn’t fill as well with blood. In its most severe form‚ blood can back up into the lungs. That’s when heart failure develops‚” Levine said in Circulation‚ a journal of the American Heart Association.