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Heart Health: How To Improve Your Heart Without Vigorous Exercise

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Don’t have time in your schedule for a vigorous jog? Take heart: A new study finds mid-lifers can enhance their heart health by regularly engaging in leisure and household activities such as gardening, brisk walking and housework. And it’s never too late to get active.

The research, which appears in the American Heart Association's journal Circulation, studied people who had participated in these activities regularly for more than a decade.

"It's not just vigorous exercise and sports that are important" to heart health, said Mark Hamer, Ph.D., study lead author and associate professor of epidemiology and public health at University College in London, U.K., in a press release. "These leisure-time activities represent moderate intensity exercise that is important to health. It is especially important for older people to be physically active because it contributes to successful aging."

The study followed 4,200 people who recorded the duration and frequency of activities outside of work, ranging from sports to chores. They included cycling, sports, brisk walking, home maintenance, “vigorous” gardening and housework.

Between 1991 and 1993, researchers conducted a baseline assessment that analyzed two important inflammatory markers, C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). Participants who engaged in regular activity had lower levels of CRP and IL-6 than those who did not. When participants were reexamined during a 10-year follow-up, the levels remained stable versus those who were minimally active.

"Inflammatory markers are important because we have shown they are a key mechanism explaining the link between physical activity and the lower risk of heart disease," Hamer noted in a press release. "The people who benefited the most from this study were the ones that remained physically active." But if you’re a couch potato, the study should encourage you to get moving: People who shifted from an inactive to active lifestyle had lower inflammatory markers at their follow-up.

One interesting tangential finding from the study: People become more active in retirement. About half of participants engaged in moderate to vigorous activity for the recommended 2.5 hours per week for heart health -- but the rate soared to 83 percent in later phases of the study.

"The percentage of exercising participants jumped quite a bit because they were entering their retirement during the last phase of the study," Hamer said in a press release. "We have shown that retirement seems to have a beneficial effect on physical activity levels."

The study participants were part of the ongoing Whitehall II research, which has followed more than 10,000 British civil service workers since 1985 to examine social and occupational influences on cardiovascular health.

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