The aim of this study was to determine the effects of cardiac rehabilitation and exercise training on plasma lipids, indexes of obesity and exercise capacity in the elderly and to compare the benefits in elderly patients with coronary heart disease with benefits in a younger cohort. Despite the well proved benefits of cardiac rehabilitation and exercise training, elderly patients with coronary heart disease are frequently not referred or vigorously encouraged to pursue this therapy. In addition, only limited data are available for these elderly patients on the benefits of cardiac rehabilitation on plasma lipids, indexes of obesity and exercise capacity. At two large multispecialty teaching institutions, baseline and post-rehabilitation data including plasma lipids, indexes of obesity and exercise capacity were compared in 92 elderly patients (> or = 65 years, mean age 70.1 +/- 4.1 years) and 182 younger patients (< 65 years, mean 53.9 +/- 7.4 years) enrolled in phase II cardiac rehabilitation and exercise programs after a major cardiac event. At baseline, body mass index (26.0 +/- 3.9 vs. 27.8 +/- 4.2 kg/m2, p < 0.001), triglycerides (141 +/- 55 vs. 178 +/- 105 mg/dl, p < 0.01) and estimated metabolic equivalents (METs) (5.6 +/- 1.6 vs. 7.7 +/- 3.0, p < 0.0001) were lower and high density lipoprotein cholesterol was greater (40.4 +/- 12.1 vs. 37.5 +/- 10.4 mg/dl, p < 0.05) in the elderly than in younger patients. After rehabilitation, the elderly demonstrated significant improvements in METs (5.6 +/- 1.6 vs. 7.5 +/- 2.3, p < 0.0001), body mass index (26.0 +/- 3.9 vs. 25.6 +/- 3.8 kg/m2, p < 0.01), percent body fat (24.4 +/- 7.0 vs. 22.9 +/- 7.2%, p < 0.0001), high density lipoprotein cholesterol (40.4 +/- 12.1 vs. 43.0 +/- 11.4 mg/dl, p < 0.001) and the ratio of low density to high density lipoprotein cholesterol (3.6 +/- 1.3 vs. 3.3 +/- 1.0, p < 0.01) and a decrease in triglycerides that approached statistical significance (141 +/- 55 vs. 130 +/- 76 mg/dl, p = 0.14) but not in total cholesterol or low density lipoprotein cholesterol. Improvements in functional capacity, percent body fat and body mass index, as well as lipids, were statistically similar in the older and younger patients. Despite baseline differences, improvements in exercise capacity, obesity indexes and lipids were very similar in older and younger patients enrolled in cardiac rehabilitation and exercise training. These data emphasize that elderly patients should not be categorically denied the psychosocial, physical and risk factor benefits of secondary coronary prevention including formal cardiac rehabilitation and supervised exercise training.