Vigorous Exercise Improves Heart Health for Senior Runners
By Jeffery Kahn

A study of senior Americans suggests that vigorous physical activity for men who are 60 or older can significantly reduce their risk factors for heart disease, their number one killer. Dr. Paul Williams, of the Life Sciences Division, conducted the research, which involved a national survey of 175 septuagenarians, 935 sexagenarians, and 8,672 younger male runners. The findings are part of the ongoing National Runners' Health Study.

Although, as would be expected, older runners run more slowly than younger men, those who ran more miles per week had more "good" cholesterol (High Density Lipoprotein, or HDL), had lower blood pressure, and were less fat, reported Williams. Higher mileage seniors also had narrower waists, indicating lower abdominal fat. Medical experts believe that a smaller "spare tire" confers many benefits including less risk of heart disease and diabetes. Whereas a recent Surgeon General's report on physical activity emphasizes the benefits of moderate activity, such as gardening or walking, Williams' study documents the benefits of vigorous activity in older men.

"Incorporating moderate activity into one's life is clearly beneficial," said Williams, "but our data show that older men may benefit substantially from greater amounts of more vigorous activity."

Though higher mileage running reduced a number of risk factors, bad cholesterol (Low Density Lipoprotein, or LDL) levels did not appear to be affected. Higher running mileage was associated with lower LDL (and lower risk) in younger men, but not in older men. One possible explanation is that with age, metabolism rates change.

Dr. Ronald Krauss, senior scientist at Berkeley Lab, warns that older men should have their LDL-cholesterol levels checked and, when appropriate, treated. "Exercise is an important adjunct to diet and cholesterol-lowering drugs. However," said Krauss, "as men get older, even long distance runners should not assume that their LDL-cholesterol is within the desirable range." LDL-cholesterol levels below 130 mg/dl are desirable, according to the National Cholesterol Education Program.

Williams also cautions that previously inactive men over age 40, women over age 50, and people at high risk of heart disease should consult a physician before embarking on a program of vigorous activity to which they are unaccustomed.