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The chances are you’ll have already heard the saying that “life begins at forty” or that middle age begins around the same time. What you might not have heard is that from around forty-four years your risk factor for coronary heart disease starts to increase. If you are already in training and working hard you’d like to think that you’re covered and protected however it depends on what training you are actually taking part in, and at what level.

The Heart and its Relationship to Training

The heart is a muscle and if there’s one thing that we know about it is how to bulk up those muscles. Your heart muscle doesn’t necessarily benefit in the same way. Strength training will see the walls of the heart (muscle) thicken. Anywhere else in the body, this could be considered a win however not so much with the heart. 

When the heart muscle “gets thicker” it does so by growing inward as opposed to outwards, essentially reducing the working area of the chambers of your heart. This reduces the oomph these chambers produce and this is not a good thing. We want all chambers to be working well and able to do so at full capacity.

Strength training therefore over the risk-factor age of forty(ish) could cause more harm than good and at this point, you have to consider whether this type of training and smashing your current strength-related goals are worth the potential damage to your health.

Endurance training also has its downsides to the slightly older heart. Instead of the chambers getting smaller due to increased muscle thickness like with strength training, endurance training sees the heart stretch. This makes it better at pumping blood effectively. While this sounds perfect in theory we are now finding that athletes who have undertaken endurance training long term have a heart that needs a pacemaker to control it and it has just become too big to so by itself.

Moving Forward

What is the solution? A pipe and slippers? Hang up the trainers for good? Of course not! You need to adapt your training regime in order to adapt the way that your heart reacts to exercise. This means finding something that works for you and helps you keep that heart healthy and well looked-after.

 If you are a strength training athlete, you need to really change the way you look at your training as ultimately this type of training past forty could cause you significant problems in the future. If endurance training has been more your thing reducing how often and how hard you work out for a time will help. This “take it easy approach” doesn’t need to be permanent as what you are looking to achieve is your heart gradually recovering somewhat from the training you have been doing long-term. Continuing endurance training is fine although you might need to look at monitoring the frequency and intensity of this somewhat.

That said, this could be the ideal time for all strength training and endurance athletes to mix it up a little, especially if there are additional risk factors or a family history of coronary heart disease to consider.

Cardio is key here to get your heart working effectively and improving overall healthy function. When weight lifting you naturally “tense” your muscles and when they tense beyond a specific point (usually fifty percent) no blood then reaches that hard-at-work muscle. This, in turn prevents oxygen consumption by the muscle and a lower oxygen demand, despite the fact your heart rate is considerably raised.

If you want your heart to improve function you need to be looking at workouts and training which facilitate a high oxygen demand. You could attempt HIIT / circuit training and the like (valid cardio workouts) however for the big push nothing is as effective as swimming, riding, running, skiing cross country or rowing; aerobic activities like this are ideal for encouraging and maintaining a healthy heart post forty.

Some might see this as a rather negative article, I see quite the opposite. When training long-term you need to consider why you are doing it. If it is that next weightlifting award only you might need to have a re-think. Overall your first priority when it comes to training at any age, but particularly post-forty should be to enjoy better health and to maintain a body that will maintain you for longer.

Hitting forty is not a milestone when everything stops, far from it, however, due to increased risk factors for coronary heart disease, at this point it might be advisable to get checked out and reconsider the next chapter of training, ensuring your workouts continue to offer you what you need to stay healthy for longer. If you aren’t sure about what comes next, you want to switch things around a bit and refocus your goals get in touch as I’d be happy to help you.