Arterial stiffness, which increases with sedentary living, is associated with higher risk of heart disease. It’s well known that exercise can help, but how much—or how little—is enough?

“While near-daily, vigorous lifelong (>25 years) endurance exercise training prevents arterial stiffening with ageing, this rigorous routine of exercise training over a lifetime is impractical for most individuals,” noted the authors of a new study, which aimed to determine the least amount of exercise necessary to reduce arterial stiffness.

The study included 102 adults over 60 years of age who had “a consistent lifelong exercise history.” Based on their accounts, subjects were placed into one of four categories: sedentary (exercised no more than once per week), casual (exercised 2–3 times per week), committed (exercised 4–5 times per week) or masters (exercised 6–7 times per week and regularly participated in athletic competition). An exercise session needed to last at least 30 minutes to qualify. About 25 individuals fit into each category.

Each subject then completed various medical examinations and stress tests. Here’s what the researchers discovered:

  • A once-per-week training session did not seem to positively affect arterial stiffness.
  • The committed and masters groups had less central arterial stiffness than the other two groups.
  • Casual exercise (2–3 times per week) was linked with lower levels of carotid artery stiffness, left ventricular overload and central blood pressure but not with less stiffness in the large central arteries. This indicates that reduced central arterial stiffness in the elderly requires a consistent commitment to exercising at least 4–5 times per week over a lifetime.
  • No dose of exercise had significant influence on peripheral artery stiffness.

The authors concluded that these findings help to define the lower levels of exercise required to improve heart health. “The present findings constitute an important step in this process by demonstrating the minimal frequency of lifelong exercise required to preserve compliant central arteries in older age.”

The study was published in The Journal of Physiology (2018;