Study: Vigorous Exercise May Help Heart Failure

Talk to your doctor before stepping up your workouts

people walking on treadmills

A recent analysis of existing studies on patients with heart failure says that exercise helps patients deal with the disease, and that for certain patients, vigorous exercise can help even more.

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The benefits of exercise for people with heart failure are well known, but the focus on intense exercise is new.

After reviewing the study, Gordon Blackburn, PhD, Program Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation at Cleveland Clinic, cautioned that, “The patient has to be stable with their heart failure managed” before any kind of exercise regimen would get the go-ahead from physicians.

5.8 million Americans affected

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says about 5.8 million people in the United States have heart failure. Having heart failure doesn’t mean that your heart has actually failed or stopped functioning, but rather that it cannot keep up with the demands your body puts on it, particularly during exertion or exercise.

Previous heart attacks, chronic high blood pressure, heart valve diseases, diabetes and certain infectious diseases and genetic defects can lead to heart failure. Advancing age is another cause of heart failure.

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People who have early-stage heart failure might not notice any symptoms. More advanced heart failure can cause shortness of breath, extreme fatigue and sometimes, swollen ankles.

Vigorous activity improved heart function

Researchers from Australia’s University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, found that heart failure patients who participated in a relatively vigorous exercise regimen had a 23 percent improvement in their heart function. That beat out the 7 percent improvement for patients who participated in less strenuous exercise programs.

Scientists measured peak oxygen consumption during exercise as an indicator of how well subjects’ hearts functioned.

The patients who worked out at an intense level experienced greater improvement in peak oxygen consumption than those who worked out at low or moderate levels. (Intensity of exercise was measured on a sliding scale: Athletes were assigned a more demanding workout than formerly sedentary patients.)

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Lower your risk and increase your energy

Regular exercise helps heart failure patients in many fundamental ways:

  • Reduces heart disease risk factors and the chance of having future heart problems
  • Reduces risk of death when exercise capacity is increased 
  • Improves circulation and helps the body use oxygen better
  • Helps increase energy levels so they can do more activities without becoming tired or short of breath
  • Improves muscle tone and strength
  • Improves balance and joint flexibility
  • Improves mood and strengthens mental health

People with heart failure who improve their exercise capacity by following a regular, guided regimen of exercise should “notice a decline in fatigue with their regular daily care and job-related tasks as well as recreational activities,” says Dr. Blackburn.

Use common sense and talk to your doctor

Although there are added benefits with higher-intensity exercise, patients with heart failure shouldn’t just run out and sign up for an Ironman competition after reading the study results. Dr. Blackburn says that patients in the study were watched over “in a supervised cardiac rehabilitation environment” and that the results “are…suggesting we can be more aggressive with exercise for these patients, but the program must be tailored to the individual and attention to management of the whole disease process is essential.”

“I would hate to think that someone with heart failure would go out and think, ‘I’m going to push myself as hard as I can,'” Dr. Blackburn cautions. “Patients should meet with their doctor and cardiac rehabilitation staff to design a safe exercise program that would provide the most benefit.”

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