Contrary to popular belief, people with heart failure can work out at the gym, ride bikes and participate in other exercises that once were considered dangerously strenuous, a large study led by Duke University researchers has found.
The findings free heart patients to be active, and are likely to fuel an effort to change public policy, authors say. Currently, Medicare and many private insurers do not cover doctor-guided exercise programs for patients who have heart failure.
The disease, which afflicts 5 million Americans, is diagnosed when the heart loses pumping force because of blockages, a heart attack or other causes. Treatments costs Medicare more than $4.5 billion a year.
For many doctors, the lack of insurance coverage was stuck in old fears that exercise would create a strain that could kill heart failure patients. In more recent years, smaller studies have shown that exercise is helpful, but the findings weren't large enough to influence coverage decisions.
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The Duke study was designed in size and scope to be definitive. It followed 2,331 patients at 82 health centers in the United States, Canada and France for more than two years. Half the patients got the normal care, including checkups and hypertension drugs. The other half got normal care, plus they were asked to start exercising on a treadmill or stationary bike for 30 minutes at least three times a week.
“We were very pleased, first and foremost, to see the safety,” said Dr. Christopher O'Connor, a Duke cardiologist who presented the study's findings Tuesday during a meeting of the American Heart Association.
But there wasn't a blockbuster finding that exercise is hugely beneficial to heart failure patients. Physical activity appears to offer no extra protection from overall hospitalizations or death, although it does result in a 15 percent lower risk of major cardiac events.
O'Connor said exercise might actually be more helpful than the findings indicate, because the study skewed care. Participants in the non-exercise group got intensive time and attention from doctors as part of the research, and some may have worked out on their own – factors that likely improved their health.