A new study of French men between 55 and 70 years old showed that “relatively intensive” endurance exercise—in this case, cycling or running—benefits the heart, even if men begin training in middle age. In this study, benefits were similar in men who had started training before the age of 30 and in those who had begun after the age of 40.
The study was reported May 9 at the EuroPRevent Congress, a conference dedicated to preventive cardiology, by David Matelot of the National Institute of Health and Scientific Research in Rennes, France.
The over-40 group involved in the study had no other cardiovascular risk factors. They were divided according to their level of exercise and the age at which they’d begun. Ten of the men had not exercised for more than two hours a week throughout most of their lives. Thirty had exercised for at least seven hours a week for more than five years, either beginning their regimens before the age of 30 (with an average starting age of 22) or after the age of 40 (with an average starting age of 48).
The Heart Health Benefits of Regular Endurance Exercise
Resting heart rate was found to be similar for the two exercise groups (56.8 bpm for the before-30 set, versus 58.1 bpm for the after-40 set) but significantly faster for the men who did not exercise.
Maximal oxygen uptake was also similar between the two endurance-training groups (47.3 ml/min/kg for the before-30s and 44.6 ml/min/kg for the after-40s) but significantly lower in the non-exercising men (33.0 ml/min/kg).
"We think this result is of interest," said Matelot, "because it is related to cardiovascular health and well-being."
Echocardiography showed that the left ventricle and both atria were bigger in the exercising men than in the non-exercisers, who also had significantly thicker blood vessel walls than the exercisers. Diastolic function (the ability of the left ventricle to fill with blood when the heart is relaxed) and other measures of heart rate were also better in the subjects who exercised.
“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,” said Matelot in his presentation.
But while the study concluded that one’s 40s are not “too late” to begin training, Matelot did say that it’s also never too early: “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.”
Getting Started After 40
Before you begin any exercise program, it’s always a good idea to discuss your plans with your doctor. And as summer heats up, there are plenty of opportunities to begin endurance training while supporting a good cause, with organizations such as Team Challenge, which helps participants train for half-marathons (that’s 13.1 miles) as fundraisers for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America.
Sound like fun? Healthline spoke to Certified Personal Trainer Wes Ferguson, who provided these tips for getting started:
Start Small to Avoid Crashing and Burning
“Endurance is something that's built up over time,” said Ferguson. “So it takes baby steps at first. Take it slow, set small goals, and give yourself rest days.”
Give Yourself Time If You’re Training for an Event
"Give yourself at least three months to train for a something like a half-marathon. It could take more or less, depending on your fitness level—but even experienced runners take about six weeks to prepare,” he said.
For example, Ferguson said a new runner might start by running three times a week with a total of eight to ten miles per week, and then increase their distance each week.
“You may have to walk some of it to begin with, and that's totally fine,” he said. "As your endurance builds, you'll need to walk or rest less."
It’s Not Necessarily About Speed
"Remember, [endurance sports] are about distance, not speed—you have to reserve energy for the long haul,” said Ferguson. “Don't let your ego push you to run through pain."
Always listen to your body, and—especially if you’re over 40 and new to exercise—take joint or back pain very seriously.
Recognize That an Older Body Is Different from a Younger One
“As we mature, our bodies take longer to recover, are more susceptible to injury, and require better maintenance to run at peak performance levels,” said Ferguson. “Baby yourself; don't push it.”
Feed the Machine
"Running burns a ton of calories, so don't be afraid of carbs—they're needed for energy. You'll also need to increase calorie intake to balance what's being burned off. If you're working at a calorie deficit, you won't have the energy you need," he said.
If you can, talk to your doctor or a fitness instructor about changes to your diet.
“A half-marathon, especially your first, is only a competition against yourself,” said Ferguson. “You win if you cross the finish line. Doesn't matter if you walk half way and finish last, the accomplishment is all yours, and nothing can take that away except the wrong attitude."