Don remembers his grandmother sitting all day, every day in her rocking chair. Her slippered feet and ankles were noticeably swollen, and she walked very slowly and with great effort whenever she got up from the chair.
The early doctors called it dropsy, meaning swelling or abnormal accumulation of fluids under the skin. Today it is simply called heart failure.
Despite the name, heart failure does not mean the heart has stopped beating but rather that its ability to pump blood has become weakened for one reason or another. “The weakening is caused by a prior heart attack, blockages in coronary arteries, uncontrolled blood pressure, problems with a heart valve or even an infection in the heart muscle,” according to David Bowman, MD, a board-certified cardiologist with the Agnesian Dale Michels Center for Heart Care.
Don’s grandmother was told by her doctor at the time not to do too much because it might stress her heart. However today, a heart doctor would advise the opposite: exercise.
Keep Blood Flowing
Aerobic exercise like walking, biking and swimming improves blood flow and keeps muscles from becoming deconditioned and weak.
Recently, a large study of patients with moderate to severe heart failure found that supervised exercise therapy produced significant improvements in symptoms, ability to function in daily activities and overall quality of life.
“It’s important to talk to your doctor first before starting an exercise routine,” according to Dr. Bowman. “Your disease must be stable before you expose it to the stress of exercise. Find out how much exercise you are capable of doing, for how long and at what level of intensity.”
Patients that have not been active for a while should start at a low level and work up gradually to 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise plus appropriate warm-up, cool down and stretching. Walking is an ideal activity because it can be done at a moderate level.
An exercise routine should include three or four aerobic sessions each week plus one to three days of resistance training with weights.