Exercising When You Have Heart Failure

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If you have heart failure, you may be very familiar with the feelings of fatigue and shortness of breath that come with even minor physical exertion like walking around the house. You might think heart failure and exercise just can't go together.

Yet doctors increasingly recommend regular exercise as a way to slow the progression of heart failure and improve quality of life. Here’s how to safely exercise for heart failure.

3 Key Benefits to Exercise for Heart Failure

Exercising generally will improve your health across the board. For heart failure, you can reap three key benefits by exercising regularly:

  • Improved oxygen uptake. One of the more distressing aspects of heart failure is shortness of breath. Studies show that regular exercise improves oxygen uptake in heart failure patients, which may result in fewer episodes of breathlessness.

  • Improved blood flow. When you exercise regularly, your entire cardiovascular system tends to perform better. This can lead to less swelling in the legs and feet, as well as improvements in blood return to the heart.

  • Increased exercise tolerance. In other words: the more you exercise, the easier it will become. The more tolerant your body becomes of physical exertion, the easier it will be for you to move around the house, take a shower, and complete other tasks.

Suggested Exercises for People With Heart Failure

You should always consult your doctor before you begin an exercise program. Your cardiologist can give you specific, personalized guidelines that cover exercise goals.

That said, here are some generally acceptable exercises you can try if you have heart failure:

  • Stretching: You can improve your flexibility and reduce your risk of injury by stretching before and after exercise sessions.

  • Walking: It’s the simplest form of exercise you can get. It requires no special equipment except comfortable shoes.

  • Bicycling: Whether you ride a stationary bike or a real two-wheeler, cycling allows you to control your exertion and reduce stress on your joints.

  • Water aerobics: For those who enjoy group exercises, water aerobics presents a low-impact option.

  • Skiing: If you enjoy the outdoors, skiing provides an excellent cardiovascular workout.

In general, you can participate in any type of exercise you can tolerate. If you are just getting started, walking is a good way to ease yourself into a fitness mindset and build up your exercise tolerance.

Exercise Precautions When You Have Heart Failure

Because your heart is not as strong as it used to be, you need to take some precautions to exercise safely with heart failure. A few guidelines:

  • Start slowly. Do not enroll in a high-intensity aerobics class if you haven’t exercised for years. This could be detrimental to your condition.

  • Be mindful about fluid intake. When you exercise, you become thirsty. But because you have heart failure, you must restrict the amount of water you drink. Before you begin an exercise program, consult your doctor for guidelines about how much water you can safely consume during exercise.

  • Avoid sports drinks. Those bottled electrolyte-replacement drinks for elite athletes mainly contain sodium (salt). Drinking a large quantity of sodium will lead to fluid retention.

  • Don’t ignore shortness of breath. It’s natural to feel slightly breathless during exercise, but if you experience real trouble breathing you should stop exercising immediately.

  • Be aware of your pulse rate. If you experience an irregular or rapid pulse, stop exercising right away and notify your doctor.

Cardiologists increasingly recommend formal cardiac rehabilitation programs for their heart failure patients. These programs involve one-on-one teaching and exercise monitoring by trained professionals in a healthcare setting. If you have mild to moderate heart failure, you might ask your doctor if you could benefit from such a program. But even if a cardiac rehab program is not available to you, exercising regularly on your own likely will improve your quality of life.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 6
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Heart Failure - Exercise. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/departments/heart/patient-education/recovery-care/heart-failure/managing-heart-failure-guide
  2. AHA Scientific Statement: Exercise and Heart Failure. American Heart Association. http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/107/8/1210.full
  3. Cardiac Conditions: Safe Exercise for People with Heart Disease. National Jewish Health. http://www.nationaljewish.org/healthinfo/conditions/cardio/exercise-and-heart-disease/
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