Exercise can help the heart get “younger” even as we age
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Enlarge this image Maria Fabrizio for NPR Enlarge this image Enlarge this imageEnlarge this image Maria Fabrizio for NPR

Eventually it happens to everyone. As we age, even if we’re healthy, the heart becomes less flexible, more stiff and just isn’t as efficient in processing oxygen as it used to be. In most people the first signs show up in the 50s or early 60s. And among people who don’t exercise, the underlying changes can start even sooner.

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“The heart gets smaller — stiffer,” says Dr. Ben Levine, a sports cardiologist at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, in Dallas.

Dr. Ben Levine

Think of the heart muscle as a rubber band, Levine says. In the beginning, the rubber band is flexible and pliable. But put it in a drawer for 20 years and it will emerge dry and brittle.

“That’s what happens to the heart and blood vessels,” he says. And down the road, that sort of stiffness can get worse, he notes, leading to the breathlessness and other symptoms of heart failure, an inability of the

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www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

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