Results from a new study at Duke University illustrate just how valuable prioritizing regular exercise—even walking—can be for our weight, heart, and overall health. This study found workouts we completed a decade ago can still impact our health for the better, regardless of whether or not we kept up the same regimen over the years.

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This study, published yesterday in Frontiers of Physiology, was a follow-up to a five-year study on how various doses and levels of exercise affect one’s cardiovascular risk and weight called Studies Targeting Risk Reduction Interventions through Defined Exercise, or STRRIDE.

175 sedentary, overweight men and women with high cholesterol or blood lipid levels between ages 40-61 were randomly assigned to various exercise regimens for eight months—or to remain sedentary for six.

The three exercise regimens were low-moderate exercise of walking 12 miles per week—the equivalent to four three-mile walks, low-vigorous exercise of jogging 12 miles per week, or high-vigorous exercise of jogging 20 miles per week—equivalent to five four-mile runs.

Results from the first study showed the equivalent of 11 miles per week at either intensity prevented significant accumulation of visceral fat—the kind stored in the abdominal cavity. Those who engaged in the high-vigorous exercise regimen also saw reduced subcutaneous fat. The control group—who remained sedentary—saw significant gains in abdominal fat.

Ten years later, 104 participants who still lived near the Duke campus came back to join a follow-up study seeking to identify any long-term health benefits of exercise. The participants filled out a medical history and physical activity questionnaire, and had their height, weight, blood pressure, waist circumference, and peak VO2 max—a numerical measurement of one’s aerobic fitness—measured. Researchers also took a blood sample from each participant to measure their glucose, insulin, and lipid levels.

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Data from this study showed all groups who participated in exercise in the first study saw a reduction in waist circumference, while the control group saw theirs rise over the previous 10 years. The two vigorous exercise groups also saw the lowest decrease in aerobic capacity—approximately 5 percent—compared to the moderate exercise and sedentary groups, who experienced a 10.5 percent increase, on average. However, all is not lost for our moderate exercisers!

Those in the low-moderate exercise group actually saw the greatest reduction in fasting insulin and mean arterial pressure. The walkers had healthier insulin and blood pressure levels in 2019 than they did when they began the first study more than 20 years ago. They also had relatively healthier metabolisms than those who participated in more vigorous exercise.

“Our findings indicate that a relatively modest period of regular exercise training creates legacy effects over the ensuing 10 years,” the authors of this study said. “The patterns observed indicate that as compared to those without a defined exercise training exposure, vigorous exercise training offers benefits for maintaining aerobic fitness; moderate intensity exercise training produces sustained legacy effects on metabolic parameters; and any exercise training helps maintain body weight and waist circumferences better than continued inactivity.”

The authors of this study said the importance of these findings are hard to overestimate from both viewpoints of personal and global health—as a single, eight-month study led to behavior changes continuing for 10 years. They believe these results have potentially sizeable and widespread effects and encourage more studies aimed at the possible health benefits of a single prolonged exercise training program.  


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