By analyzing reported physical activity levels over time in more than 11 000 American adults, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers conclude that increasing physical activity to recommended levels over as few as six years in middle age is associated with a significantly decreased risk of heart failure, a condition that affects an estimated 5 million to 6 million Americans.

The same analysis found that as little as six years without physical activity in middle age was linked to an increased risk of the disorder.

Unlike a heart attack, in which heart muscle dies, heart failure is marked by a long-term, chronic inability of the heart to pump enough blood, or pump it hard enough, to bring needed oxygen to the body. The leading cause of hospitalizations in those over 65, the disorder’s risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking and family history.