Stepping up exercise levels in your 50s is likely to cut your chances of suffering a heart attack in later life.
Only two-and-a-half hours of moderate activity a week appears to suppress inflammation in the body which is believed to contribute to heart disease, a long-term study has found.
It means that, even for the middle aged who have been inspired by the exploits of athletes during the Olympics, it is never too late to exercise and change their future health for the better.
And it is not necessarily only vigorous training or sports that offer these protective benefits, the researchers said.
The exercise simply has to raise the heart rate – and includes leisure activities such as gardening, DIY and brisk walking.
The link between exercise and improved heart health is already well-known. But the latest research, by British Heart Foundation-funded scientists, is the first major study to confirm that the likely mechanism is its anti-inflammatory effects, they said.
Middle-aged participants who got off the sofa and became active were found to have lower ‘inflammatory markers’ in their blood at the end of the ten-year study.
Inflammation levels remained lower in those approaching and living in retirement who were physically active compared with those who did relatively little, it found.
Lead study author Dr Mark Hamer, associate professor of epidemiology and public health at University College in London, said: ‘Our study reveals for the first time the long-term effects of leading an active lifestyle on inflammation and heart disease.’ He added: ‘Previous studies looking at how exercise protects the heart have only been carried out for short periods of time.’
Heart and circulatory disease causes one in three of all deaths in the UK – about 191,000 deaths each year – at a cost of £30billion to the economy.
There are nearly 2.7million people suffering from coronary heart disease in the UK, according to the British Heart Foundation.
The study of more than 4,000 civil servants – whose average age was 49 years when the research began – compared their exercise routines and levels of inflammation as a means to gauge heart health.
‘Inflammatory markers are important because we have shown they are a key mechanism explaining the link between physical activity and the lower risk of heart disease,’ Dr Hamer explained.
‘The people who benefited the most from this study were the ones who remained physically active.’
Government guidelines recommend adults take aerobic exercise five times a week for 30 minutes or more for maximum health benefits.
The level of exertion should be enough to raise the heart rate to 120 beats a minute or higher – which includes a brisk walk and swimming. But taking a stroll or even gardening is also regarded as healthy activity.
At the start of the study in the early Nineties, researchers analysed two key inflammatory markers in participants’ blood: C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6).
The group was assessed again six and 11 years later, the medical journal Circulation reported.
Physically active participants had lower CRP and IL-6 levels at the outset and the difference stayed stable over time, compared with those who rarely met the exercise guidelines. About half of the participants met the recommended guidelines, but the rate rose to 83 per cent in subsequent phases of the study.
‘The percentage of exercising participants jumped quite a bit because they were entering their retirement during the last phase of the study,’ said Dr Hamer.
‘Retirement seems to have a beneficial effect on physical activity levels. People who spring into retirement and become more active are actually making a big difference in helping their hearts grow old healthily.’ It was not just vigorous exercise and sports that are important, he added.
‘Leisure-time activities represent moderate intensity exercise that is important to health. ‘It is especially important for older people to be physically active because it contributes to successful ageing,’ Dr Hamer said.
Maureen Talbot, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘Donning your gardening gloves, or picking up a paint brush, can still go a long way to help look after your heart health, as exercise can have a big impact on how well your heart ages.
‘This research highlights the positive impact changing your exercise habits can have on the future of your heart health – and that it’s never too late to re-energise your life.
‘However it’s important not to wait until you retire to get off the couch, as being active for life is a great way to keep your heart healthy.’