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Regular Exercise and Heart Failure

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2023

Exercise is good for you. It is a phrase we have all heard before. Just like the following adages that we have heard all throughout our lives: “eat your vegetables”, “drink your milk”, or “stand up straight.” But we rarely stop to ask ourselves why are we being told these things and are they based in fact? What we do know is that vegetables are an important part of healthy eating supplying nutrients to support good health and growth; milk helps to build strong bones; and standing up straight helps posture, builds core strength and improves appearance. And yes, exercise is good for you too!

Benefits of regular exercise

The benefits of regular exercise can lead to a healthier and longer life including weight control, the prevention or management of certain health problems, boosting mood and energy, and even help to improve the quality of sleep.1-5 If you have heart failure (HF), the benefits of regular exercise can help you take control of your life, keep symptoms in check, and prevent your condition from worsening.1-5 Research has demonstrated that physical activity including exercise, work, and sex is healthy and safe for most people living with heart failure.3,5

Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the demands of the body. Common symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath and exercise intolerance, which is the reduced ability to perform physical activities that require significant movement or exertion.4

Exercise capacity is related to the ability of the muscles to use oxygen carried by the blood to nourish the body. If the heart cannot pump enough blood to feed the body, then capacity is diminished and symptoms may develop.4

Physical activity, including regular exercise, is important to maintaining heart health.1 Exercise is a key part of managing HF and other cardiovascular conditions.2,3 It is beneficial to reducing blood pressure, improving or maintaining cholesterol levels, controlling weight and help manage diabetes.1 Exercise strengthens muscles and the heart is a large muscle that can be strengthened.2 Exercise can be fun and social.5

Regular exercise can ease symptoms of heart failure, aid healing after a heart attack or operation, and help extend life.2 Exercise training for people with chronic stable heart failure should be individualized.4 Your healthcare team will determine what kind of exercise is safe and beneficial for you.2

How much exercise is right?

General recommendations suggest that at least 150 minutes, 2 1/2 hours of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of high-intensity activity per week, in addition to two sessions of strength training per week are the optimal activity levels.2 But many people with heart failure have become inactive due to symptoms or other illnesses making it important to become more active on a gradual basis. Seek personal advice on the importance of warming up, cooling down, and stretching as a part of your exercise regimen.3

Whether or not you have traditionally been physically active, regular exercise is an important step in maintaining or restoring heart health.3 It is important to talk with your health care team before starting an exercise program or increasing your present plan.1-4 They will consider your degree of heart failure along with your general physical health, other comorbid conditions, and diseases or illnesses that are present which could impact your ability to exercise safely.3

Cardiac rehabilitation

Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program that involves exercise, counseling and regular monitoring. Cardiac rehab is run by a specialized staff who are trained to help people with cardiac conditions exercise safely.3 Cardiac rehab is prescribed by your healthcare team after major heart operations including CABG, LVAD, and transplants, to help the recovery process. But, you can also be prescribed cardiac rehab for systolic heart failure. It is important for the body and the mind.5 Exercise can make you feel stronger physically and benefit socially, especially if because of illness you may have experienced periods of isolation.5

An exercise plan can include both indoor and outdoor activities as well as back up ideas in case you are unable to get to the gym or your preferred location. Exercise doesn’t mean you have to be in the gym. Walking, gardening, swimming, bike riding, and bowling are all forms of physical activity that can help you stay active and do the activities you enjoy.3,5 Regular exercise can benefit both the length and quality of your life.

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