We have all heard the saying, “life begins at 40.” Now, a new study suggests that endurance exercise can, too, while still providing the same heart benefits as it would if started before the age of 30.

The research team, including David Matelot of the Inserm 1099 unit at the University of Rennes in France, recently presented their findings at the EuroPRevent Congress in the Netherlands.

For their study, they assessed 40 healthy men from France aged between 55 and 70 years old. All participants were split into groups dependent on their levels of exercise and the age at which they began.

This resulted in three groups; one group had never exercised more than 2 hours a week throughout their lifetime, another group exercised at least 7 hours a week over 5 years and started before the age of 30, while the third group exercised at least 7 hours a week and started after the age of 40. Exercise in all groups involved either running or cycling.

On average, those who started exercising before the age of 30 had been training for an average of 39 years, or from the age of 22. Those who started exercising after 40 had been training for an average of 18 years, or from the age of 48.

To see the effects exercise had on the participants’ hearts, their heart rates and oxygen uptake were measured during maximal exercise. They also underwent echocardiography – a test that uses sound waves to generate moving pictures of the heart – at rest and during maximal exercise.

The researchers found that average resting heart rates were similar in those who regularly exercised. Those who started training before the age of 30 had a resting heart rate of 56.8 beats per minute (bpm), while the resting heart rate was 58.1 bpm in those who started after the age of 40.

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Starting exercise from the age of 40 has the same heart benefits it would if started before the age of 30, according to researchers.

Maximal oxygen uptake was also similar for both exercising groups. Those who exercised before the age of 30 had a maximal oxygen uptake of 47.3 ml/min/kg, while it was 44.6 ml/min/kg for those who began after the age of 40.

However, the non-exercising group had a much faster resting heart rate, at 69.7 bpm, and a significantly lower maximal oxygen uptake, at 33.0 ml/min/kg.

From echocardiography results, the team found that the left ventricle and both atria in the heart were bigger in the two exercising groups, compared with the non-exercising group. The non-exercising group also had much thicker heart vessel walls than the exercising groups.

“Thus,” says Matelot, “cardiac remodeling seems to be different between both of the trained groups and the non-trained subjects.”

The researchers also found that both exercising groups had better diastolic function – the process in which the left ventricle fills with blood when the heart is relaxed – than the non-exercising group.

On comparing echocardiography results between both exercising groups, the researchers found no differences.

Commenting on the findings, Matelot says:

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.

However, 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.”

Matelot notes that as we age, our cardiovascular system undergoes adverse structural and functional changes. Although exercise cannot stop these changes from happening, he says it can slow them down.

He points out, however, that it is not clear whether starting endurance training later in life may counteract the effects that earlier lack of exercise may have had on the heart.

“But it’s never too late to change your way of life and get more physically active,” he adds. “This will always be beneficial for the heart and well-being. And there’s no need for a high level of training for many hours a week. Using the stairs rather than the elevator, or gardening regularly, can also be beneficial.”

This view was recently echoed in another study reported by Medical News Today, in which researchers found that for people aged 65 and over, increasing physical activity may reduce the risk of heart attack.