Fitness May Aid Heart Failure Patients

Aerobic Exercise May Be More Beneficial Than Strength Training, but Get a Doctor's OK First

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 11, 2007
From the WebMD Archives

June 11, 2007 -- Aerobic exercise such as walking or bicycling may help heart failure patients, according to a new research review.

But before starting an exercise program, heart failure patients should seek their doctor's help, notes an editorial published with the review in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart can't pump blood effectively to the rest of the body.

In the past, heart failure patients were often advised not to exercise. That’s changed in recent years.

The new review examines the evidence on the benefits of exercise for heart failure patients. The reviewers included Mark Haykowsky, PhD, of Canada's University of Alberta.

Heart Failure and Exercise

Haykowsky's team reviewed 14 studies that together included 812 heart failure patients in stable condition. The patients were 57 years old, on average; most were men.

In most of the studies, some patients were assigned to get aerobic exercise for 20 minutes to one hour per exercise session. For comparison, other patients weren't asked to exercise.

Four studies added strength training to aerobic exercise. One study featured strength training without aerobic exercise.

The studies lasted from two to 12 months. Their bottom line: Aerobic exercise helped, but strength training wasn't proven to be beneficial by itself or in addition to aerobic exercise.

In a nutshell, aerobic exercise boosted the heart's efficiency and pumping ability. The comparison groups showed no heart benefits.

Caution for Heart Failure Patients

Haykowsky's team calls aerobic training an "inexpensive and effective" intervention for heart failure patients.

But the reviewers aren't telling heart failure patients to lace up their sneakers and head to the gym.

They note that the patients in the reviewed studies may not be typical heart failure patients. A large study that's under way may add more detail in the years to come.

Meanwhile, editorialist Stanley Rubin, MD, FACC, reminds heart failure patients to work with their doctors in planning exercise programs.

Rubin is a cardiologist with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

"Caution is strongly advised" for heart failure patients starting exercise programs, Rubin writes in his editorial.

He notes that patients need to have "realistic expectations of the small but real benefit" they might get from exercise.

Heart failure patients must also attend to their diet, lifestyle, medication, and medical devices. Exercise is "not a substitute" for those things, writes Rubin.

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SOURCES: Haykowsky, M. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, June 19, 2007; vol 49: pp 2329-2336. WebMD Medical Reference: "Understanding Heart Failure -- the Basics." News release, American College of Cardiology.

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