Maintaining Cardiovascular Health in Later Life

Our heart and lungs carry us through life, second in importance only to our brains. These organs are superlative: the heart pumps nearly 10 litres of blood every single day, representing the hardest-working muscle in our bodies. Our lungs fold 2,400 kilometres of airways and 80-100 square metres of surface area into a space less than a quarter of a metre squared. In every waking and sleeping moment, we rely on our lungs and cardiovascular system for everything from the circulation of nutrients which provide our bodies with energy to the oxygen which powers our thoughts.

Every time we take exercise, our heart and breathing rates increase as our cardiovascular system attempts to supply every worked muscle and supporting organ with sugars and oxygen. It’s obvious that this heightened activity would – as with any other muscle – lead to increased strength and a lower resting heart-rate overall, but the extent to which exercise can help is sometimes hard to believe. In 2015, several Royal Marines Commandos became the subject of much scientific interest when the heart and breathing rate monitors they wore during assessment started to ring some very strange alarm bells. The men’s heart-rate in particular was so slow, even during vigorous exercise, that the monitors decided it couldn’t possibly sustain them. These elite Commandos were so fit as to be literally off the charts.

While this illustrates the huge gulf between good and poor cardiovascular health, it doesn’t represent much of an objective for the rest of us. Most of us really just want to know that we have a powerful and healthy heart and lungs, and are aware that cardiovascular health tends to slowly drop off as we get older. Steering clear as much as is possible of tobacco, alcohol and saturated fats is an important factor in controlling this trend, as is the process of minimising and dealing with stress. The most notable factors, however, are less about what we do and more about what we don’t do. These natural factors include muscle fibres atrophying, the body becoming less used to high peak demands and the signalling systems which tell the heart how hard to work becoming less responsive over time. All of these factors, however, have the same cause: inactivity.

There is nothing more destructive to our cardiovascular health (not even smoking) than a sedentary lifestyle devoid of vigorous activity. Conversely, there is nothing which promotes good cardiovascular health better than regular, well-planned exercise. It’s not necessary to run every day, in fact it’s quite possible to never run anywhere and have excellent cardiovascular health. What is important is to deliberately work the cardiovascular system at least every other day.

‘Vigorous’ exercise doesn’t have to be unpleasantly demanding, it can simply be anything which substantially raises the pulse and causes you to get even a little out of breath. The more powerful your cardiovascular system, the more and more demanding exercise will be required to improve it further. This means that both correcting poor cardiovascular health and maintaining good cardiovascular health are relatively easy. If a lot of work is required, each little bit of exercise will have a dramatic impact. If the heart and lungs are powerful and well-maintained, regular and appropriate exercise will require only minor exertion, keeping existing health levels ‘topped up.’

The best approach to begin with is to work out for yourself how much you can ‘do’ without exerting yourself (how far or fast can you walk, for example, before you feel your heart beating hard and your breath quickening?) and then push yourself a little beyond that limit for a short period of time. Every time you repeat this, the point at which actual cardiovascular effort is required should be a little further from your starting point, and you should be able to maintain that elevated level of activity for a little longer.

At Signature Senior Lifestyle we believe that regular, well-planned and enjoyable activity is a basic part of “the good life” and provide an extensive programme of activities ranging from gentle exercise to music and group walks to the ancient internal martial art of Tai Chi, renowned for its promotion of core strength, breathing and stress reduction. Almost everyone has the potential, at just about any age, to do the equivalent of running five miles without stopping. Almost nobody has the capacity. All it takes is to start small, increasing the demands each time, until your body realises what it’s truly capable of. You may be profoundly surprised.

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