There may be some truth to the saying, "It's not how old you are; it's how old you feel."
A research team led by longtime UNLV kinesiology professor Larry Golding found that regular exercise, especially if continued over time, significantly reduces the risk of coronary heart disease in middle-aged and older men.
"Our study shows that regular, continuous physical activity throughout the lifespan may reverse the undesirable effects of aging on coronary heart disease indicators," said Golding. "In fact, overall indicators of participants after 20 years were comparable or better than those of elite young male runners."
The study examined cholesterol and triglyceride levels -- factors closely associated with coronary heart disease -- of 20 sedentary men who took part in an on-campus exercise program for 20 consecutive years.
Good News on "Bad" Cholesterol
Few studies have studied the effects of regular exercise in reducing risk of coronary heart disease over such an extended period of time. Among the study's findings:
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol, dropped significantly throughout the study; 27 percent after first year, 60 percent over 20 years.
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, improved significantly throughout the first 15 years of the study, with 60 percent increase after first year.
- Total cholesterol (combination of LDL, HDL, and other lipid components) dropped nearly 18 percent after year one; 40 percent over 20 years.
- Triglyceride levels decreased each year of the exercise program; 23 percent after first year, 61 percent over 20 years.
More than 300 people joined and withdrew from the study over the course of 30 years, each remaining for at least one year. Of those, 20 previously inactive adult males who participated for 20 consecutive years were chosen for the study. The mean were between the ages of 30 and 51 and had no history of heart disease. Researchers conducted blood tests at the end of each year to measure LDL, HDL, total cholesterol, triglycerides, and total cholesterol/HDL ratios.
Participants met for supervised instruction with a certified exercise physiologist on campus roughly four times per week. Each session consisted of 45 minutes of high-intensity strength training, endurance, and aerobic exercises. Exercise intensity increased gradually throughout the first year and was maintained at a high level throughout the course of the study.
The Weight is Over
At the end of the study, participants were placed into two groups according to total weight loss (more or less than 22 pounds). On average, participants lost 27 pounds; however, differences in weight loss did not affect changes in the indicators measured. Researchers noted that, in general, the weight lost from participating in the exercise study might have indirectly caused reductions in LDL and total cholesterol.
"Though the most significant changes occurred during the first year of the study, the fact that gradual improvements continued throughout the 20 years shows that regular physical activity -- not age -- is the deciding factor on cholesterol and triglyceride levels," said Golding.