A recent study has shown that first-time marathon runners significantly improved their heart health by following a relatively low-intensity six-month training program.
In the study, 138 first-time marathon runners participated in a beginner training program for the London Marathon (available here). Their ages ranged from 21 to 69, and none had a history of cardiovascular disease or ran for more than two hours per week before the study. The participants had their central blood pressure and aortic stiffness measured before they started training, and both quantities were measured again two weeks after the marathon.
The measurements showed that participants decreased their blood pressure and aortic stiffness significantly over the six months of training. Their improvements were equivalent to about a four-year reduction in vascular age, with older and slower runners seeing the greatest benefits
Aging is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but we can influence the effective “age” of our vascular systems through lifestyle choices like diet and exercise. Our arteries tend to harden over time, which increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, and more, but several studies have shown that exercise can reduce aortic stiffening. This study showed just how much of an influence exercise can have. One of the study authors noted that he was not a runner before the study, but he decided to start running after seeing the results.
Regular exercise is a key to heart health as well as overall health and wellbeing. While the beginning training program used in the study was relatively approachable, other forms of exercise are likely to have similar benefits. A good goal is to meet the recommendations of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which suggest aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.