Variety, not intensity, key to exercising an elderly heart

Variety is the spice of life—and when it comes to the heart health of the elderly, it’s also great exercise advice.

A collaborative research effort between Columbia University and the University of Miami explored the value of physical activity and exercise in helping to prevent heart disease and other related deaths among senior citizens. The goal was to provide that population with more specific guidelines on how to stay active and healthy.

Researchers examined data from the Northern Manhattan Study (NOMAS) multiethnic prospective cohort of elderly stroke-free individuals consisting of a total of 3,300 participants recruited between 1993 and 2001, with a median follow up of 17 years. On average, patients were 69 years old when they were recruited for the study.

The analysis took into account general health, weekly activity level, how they stayed active and the energy-to-duration ratio (EDR). Participants were asked whether they walked, jogged, hiked, did gardening or yard work, participated in aerobics, cycled, did water sports or played tennis, golf or squash.

A high activity frequency was associated with a reduced cardiovascular mortality but didn’t improve risk of non-cardiovascular death. Instead, a high EDR was associated with increased risk of cardiovascular death. Participation in a high number of different types of activities was found to be beneficial across the board.

"Performing frequent and diverse exercise without high intensity in an elderly population such as ours is achievable and can reduce the risk of death," Ying Kuen Cheung, a professor of biostatistics at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said in a statement. "Having the ability to engage in a large number of different activities can be more strongly associated with cardio-respiratory fitness, which may explain why we found a protective effect for all our outcomes."

A high heart-related death rate was found among the group of seniors who frequently exerted themselves too much through intense bouts of physical activity.

"Our findings thus suggest that high frequency of high intensity exercise may undo the benefits of frequent exercise in terms of cardiovascular mortality," said Cheung. "Given the ease of participating in low intensity but daily leisure time physical activity, our findings suggest that this can be incorporated in current recommendations provided to older people."