Get a younger, fitter heart in two years or less

There’s no question that bad habits catch up with you. That’s why I’m always telling you to eat and exercise like your life depends on it. Because, quite literally, it does.

Let’s assume for a minute, though, that you haven’t taken this advice to heart — at least, not until now. Let’s also assume you’re over 40, or 50, or even 60. You might think the damage is done, and that changing course this late in the game will get you nowhere.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, new research shows that it only takes two years of committed exercise to turn your heart’s health around. Even if you’re middle-aged. And even if you’ve been a couch potato your entire life before now.

A recent study looked at 61 sedentary but otherwise “healthy” subjects — all between the ages of 45 and 64 years old. Researchers randomly assigned them to a two-year exercise program, consisting of either supervised training or a yoga and balance regimen.

The first three months featured regular sessions of 30 to 45 minutes of moderate exercise, four to five days a week, for a total of 150 to 180 minutes weekly. These sessions increased in either duration or frequency each month after.

First, researchers added in aerobic interval training (that is, four minutes of high-intensity activity, alternated with three minutes of recovery, repeated). High-intensity days were followed by light-activity recovery days.

By six months into the study, subjects were exercising five to six hours per week — including two high-intensity interval sessions, at least one strength-training session, and at least 90 minutes of moderate intensity activity. (That’s where you break a sweat, but can still carry on a conversation.)

And by ten months, subjects started their maintenance phase — where the goal was simply to stay on track and keep things fresh by mixing up activities and exercise environments.

Two years down the road, when all was said and done, subjects in this study had increased their exercise capacity by nearly 20 percent. But more importantly, they reduced left ventricle stiffness, and ended up with a more elastic heart muscle — while controls saw no change in heart stiffness at all.

Let me remind you that we’re talking about older subjects, some well into their 60s, who didn’t exercise at all before this study started. And yet, with just two years of committed training, they had the hearts of athletes. And a dramatically lower risk of death — by either heart disease or any cause — because of it.

I can’t imagine a more extraordinary result from a single, incredibly simple change. But there you have it. A virtual fountain of youth is at your fingertips — and all you have to do is exercise, consistently, for two years to reap the benefits.

Granted, the regimen in this study was fairly intense — but it goes to show you that you can work your way up to just about any goal with focus and commitment. How great would it be if our healthcare system actually supported this kind of physical therapy for everyone instead of just handing out more drugs?

It may not be as easy as popping a pill. But exercise remains one of the most powerful medicines you have. You don’t always have to like it. (Though once you make it a part of your routine, I’m willing to be that you will.)

But please… just do it.