MONDAY, Aug. 13, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Keeping up a leisure-time physical activity regimen for a decade or more could help middle-aged adults improve their heart health, researchers report.
Over time, routine activities -- such as brisk walking, biking, or even doing housework or gardening vigorously -- can reduce markers of inflammation, according to new research published in the Aug. 13 issue of Circulation.
"It's not just vigorous exercise and sports that are important," study author Mark Hamer, an associate professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London in England, said in a news release from the American Heart Association. "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," he added.
In conducting the study, the investigators asked more than 4,200 participants, average age 49, how long and how often they engaged in their leisure-time physical activities.
The researchers also analyzed two key markers of inflammation among the participants when the study began. These markers -- called C-reactive protein and interleukin 6 -- were re-assessed in the patients about 11 years later.
The findings revealed that the participants who were more active had lower markers of inflammation than the people who rarely got the recommended minimum of 2.5 hours per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity. This was also the case at the patients' follow-up assessment.
"Inflammatory markers are important because we have shown they are a key mechanism explaining the link between physical activity and the . . . risk of heart disease," explained Hamer. "The people who benefited the most from this study were the ones that remained physically active."
Overall, the researchers found that about 49 percent of the participants met the standard physical activity recommendations to boost heart health. In the later phases of the study, however, the rate reached 83 percent. The authors suggested that physical activity may increase when people retire.
"The percentage of exercising participants jumped quite a bit because they were entering their retirement during the last phase of the study," Hamer pointed out. "We have shown that retirement seems to have a beneficial effect on physical activity levels."
The study authors also noted that the participants who were inactive when the study began who became physically active over the course of the study period lowered their inflammatory markers by the time they had their follow-up assessment.
"Previous studies have looked at the association between physical activity and inflammatory markers in cross-sectional and short-term studies, but none have done this using longitudinal data," Hamer explained in the news release. "Our data is much stronger than the previous shorter or cross-sectional studies, adds to prior evidence and confirms the importance of physical activity for its anti-inflammatory effects."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the health benefits of physical activity.