Exercise: How Even a Little May Help Older Hearts

Cardiovascular disease event risk in older adults with less mobility may be reduced with light physical activity

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Older adults with reduced mobility may not move around a lot, but a little activity may go a long way in maintaining their heart health.

A new study found that physical activity in older adults with reduced mobility may lower their risk of major heart problems — and the intensity of the exercise may not be as important as just being less sedentary.

Sandeep Singh, MD, a board certified internist and cardiologist on the medical staff at Baylor Heart and Vascular Hospital, told dailyRx News that compared to their younger counterparts, older patients often have higher rates of conditions that limit physical activity, such as arthritis, diabetes with associated neuropathy or cardiovascular limitations.

"Hence, safe physicial activity which avoids potential injury from falls is the priority. Older patients also tend to be on more medications and blood thinners, which can cause side effects like dizziness that can lead to falls, or serious bleeding," said Dr. Singh, who was not involved in this study.

"I believe a major role of doctors is to educate patients and give them the resources (such as physical or occupational therapists) to avoid possible injuries when starting out," he said. "I usually recommend patients start with simple exercises even while sitting such as moving their feet back and forth for 5-10 minutes at a time and doing multiple reps. If a patient is wheelchair bound, they can start with hand movements or gripping exercises."

Thomas W. Buford, PhD, of the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville, was the senior author of this study.

"Reducing time spent being sedentary even by engaging in low-intensity activities could have important cardiovascular benefits for older adults with mobility limitations," Dr. Buford said in a press release.

Dr. Buford and team followed nearly 1,200 patients with reduced mobility. These patients were 79 years old on average.

Patients spent 77 percent of their day being sedentary, Dr. Buford and team found. The patients recorded light activity for only three hours per day on average. No patients reported moderate or vigorous activity. Moderate activity included walking briskly or riding a bike under 10 miles an hour. Vigorous activity included jogging, running, swimming or riding a bike over 10 miles an hour.

The study patients were predicted to have a 13 percent overall risk of major cardiac events, such as heart attack and death, over the next 10 years. Dr. Buford and team found that every 25 to 30 minutes of being sedentary per day increased this risk by 1 percent. And every 15 to 20 minutes of light activity per day cut this risk by 1 percent.

Dr. Buford and team also studied the effect of activity on cholesterol levels.

Each minute spent being sedentary per day reduced the levels of HDL cholesterol in the blood. HDL (or "good") cholesterol picks up excess cholesterol in the blood and takes it to the liver to be broken down. Light activity increased patients' levels of HDL cholesterol.

Dr. Buford and team said that current guidelines suggest moderate to vigorous activity at least three days a week to improve heart health. However, these levels of activity may not be possible for older adults with reduced mobility.

Instead, being less sedentary may be key, regardless of the intensity, Dr. Buford and colleagues said.

"It is becoming increasingly evident ... that encouraging individuals to just reduce the amount of time they spend being sedentary may have important cardiovascular benefits," Dr. Buford said. "This stresses the need for regular intervals of low-level movement and to avoid sitting for excessive stretches of time."

This study was published online Feb. 18 in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Grants from the National Institutes of Health and the participating universities funded this study. Dr. Buford and team disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
February 17, 2015
Last Updated:
February 19, 2015