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Intensive exercise 'may' benefit heart failure patients

11 November, 2013

An analysis conducted by University of New England researchers has heart specialists around the world reconsidering exactly how hard patients with chronic heart failure can push themselves.

The results of the study seem to suggest that 'relatively' intensive exercise may actually be of significant benefit to patients' heart function.

Only 30 or so years ago, the last thing specialists would recommend to people with chronic heart failure was intense physical activity, where exercise was considered dangerous and bed rest was strongly advised to avoid putting strain on an already fragile heart.

This thinking has evolved somewhat, with most specialists now agreeing that some moderate exercise is important for the overall wellbeing of heart patients, but many doctors still caution patients against pushing themselves when it comes to exercise, warning that it could be dangerous to their health.

Associate Professor Neil Smart has undertaken extensive meta-analyses of all published data relating to those suffering systolic heart failure, with results showing that relatively high-intensity exercise programs led to a 23 per cent improvement in heart function. This compares with only 7 per cent improvement in patients taking part in low-intensity programs.

"We consider a number of factors when looking into exercise regimes for people suffering heart failure," Associate Professor Smart said.

"We take into account how long patients exercise for, how many times a week, and at what intensity. We now have a reasonable evidence base to say that relatively high-intensity exercise can have positive effects on heart function."

This is not to say that the study has ruled out the potential risk factor involved in such exercise.

Associate Professor Smart said: "We are not suggesting that heart failure patients should immediately rush into a lot of high-intensity physical activity, especially if they are unsupervised. It is extremely important for people with heart failure to exercise under adequate supervision and in consultation with their doctor.

"High intensity probably means patients need to complete interval training where very short exercise efforts are followed by sufficient rest or recovery periods.

"Interval training complicates the exercise prescription. It is therefore recommended that a health professional, with experience in exercise rehabilitation, is consulted before embarking on a high intensity program."

High-intensity exercise generally refers to activity that raises a person's heart rate to a level above 85 per cent of their maximum heart rate, but not all patients are stable enough for this level of exertion.

Associate Professor Smart's study was recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology and has been selected for continuing medical education (CME) points from the journal.

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