Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of three or more risk factors - including high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar readings, excess abdominal fat and high cholesterol levels - that, taken together, constitute a deadly mix of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and its Heart Institute (USA) have determined that in people age 55 to 75, a moderate program of physical exercise can significantly offset the potentially deadly mix of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes known as the metabolic syndrome. They found that exercise improved over all fitness, but the 23 per cent fewer cases were more strongly linked to reductions in total and abdominal body fat and increases in muscle leanness, rather than improved fitness.
The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, is believed to be the first to focus on the role of exercise training in treating metabolic syndrome in older persons, a group at high risk for heart disease and diabetes. It raises the importance of physical exercise in treating both men and women with the metabolic syndrome.
'Older people are very prone to have the metabolic syndrome,' said lead study investigator and exercise physiologist Kerry Stewart. 'While each component of metabolic syndrome increases disease risk by itself, when combined, they represent an even greater risk for developing heart disease, diabetes and stroke.'
Researchers studied 104 older people who had no previous signs of cardiovascular disease beyond untreated, mild hypertension, for a six-month period. One half of the participants received a booklet that encouraged increased activity, such as walking, to promote good health. The other half participated in a supervised series of exercises for 60 minutes, three times a week. 'The combination of exercises was designed to work all major muscle groups, the heart and circulation. These included aerobics on a treadmill, bicycle or stepper, plus weightlifting,' reports IHRSA.
The group that was exercising for six months showed a 16 per cent improvement in aerobic fitness and strength fitness increased by 17 per cent. The average weight loss was 2 kilograms in this group as much of the loss of fat was offset by increased muscle mass. The fat in the abdominal region, was also reduced by 20 per cent in this exercising group. The group that was not exercising had either no or significantly less improvement than the exercising group.
'At the beginning of the study, 43 per cent of all participants had the metabolic syndrome. By the end of the study, participants in the exercising group had no new cases of metabolic syndrome, and the condition had resolved in nine of them, a reduction of 41 per cent. In the control group, eight participants no longer had the syndrome, while four new cases appeared, resulting in an overall reduction of only 18 per cent,' reports IHRSA.
'Older people can benefit greatly from exercise, especially to reduce their risk for developing metabolic syndrome,' said Stewart. 'Our results show that this population can be motivated to follow through with a moderate exercise program, and for some risk factors, such as abdominal fat, exercise can be as effective as what is accomplished today with drugs.'
'A novel finding of our study was that the changes in disease risk factors with exercise training were more closely related to reductions in body fat, particularly abdominal fat, and increases in muscle tissue, rather than improvements in fitness.'
'The results also confirm the value of exercise for managing multiple risk factors. Because so many older persons have or are at risk for metabolic syndrome, this study provides a very strong reason for individuals to increase their physical activity levels. They will reduce their fatness, and increase their fitness and leanness, while reducing their risk for heart disease and diabetes.'
Estimates of the prevalence of metabolic syndrome range from 25 per cent to 40 per cent of American adults age 40 and older, so we can expect similar levels for Australian older adults.
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