With Heart Defects, Exercise Gives a Lift

Congenital heart disease patients need regular physical activity to live healthier lives

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) People with congenital heart disease may worry that exercise could do them more harm than good. Regular physical activity, however, is vital to their overall well-being.

More than 859,000 children and 850,000 adults in the United States with congenital heart disease have dealt with heart structural problems since birth. Many choose to live a sedentary lifestyle because they may be concerned about overexerting their hearts.

A new scientific statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) reminds physicians and people with congenital heart disease that regular moderate exercise is safe and can be beneficial.

"Exercise regularly if you have congenital heart disease."

The AHA highlights that only a limited amount of research on physical activity among congenital heart disease patients has been done. The organization’s recommendations are based on general recommendations for physical exercise for healthy children and adults.

Patients with congenital heart disease are relatively inactive, according to this new statement. Because this population is at risk for exercise intolerance, obesity and other diseases, regular exercise is especially important, providing “physical, psychological and social health benefits.”

There are a few exceptions, so it's good to talk to your physician about your specific situation, according to the AHA.

Some patients with irregular heartbeat conditions may have to restrict activity.

Although some physicians may advise caution to a patient with an enlarged aorta (the major artery in the body), there is no proven link between exercise and harmful outcomes from an enlarged aorta, according to the AHA.

If you've been inactive for a long time and want to start a regular exercise routine, the AHA advises speaking with your doctor about how to get started safely. Your doctor may recommend an exercise test, which can provide you with guidelines for exercise.

The best and safest types of exercise are aerobic activities, according to the AHA. These increase the heart rate and cause heavy breathing. Examples of aerobic exercise include brisk walking, swimming, biking, jogging, rowing, cross country skiing, hiking or stair climbing. Team or court sports such as basketball, soccer, football, tennis, squash and volleyball are also aerobic activities.

John Dieck, MD, President of Texas Heart & Vascular and dailyRx Contributing Expert said, "While it is true that regular physical activity is generally good for everybody, patients with congenital heart disease should speak to their cardiologist before embarking on any training program, aerobic or not. 

He continued "The spectrum of Congenital Heart Disease is vast and there are patients in whom a rigorous exercise program is safe and beneficial; and there are patients in whom a sport prone to rapid starts and stops or impact, such as football may be detrimental.  These patients should speak to their cardiologist.'

The AHA recommends avoiding activities that cause grunting or straining.

“Straining causes a sudden rise in blood pressure, which adds strain on the heart; it increases the pressure in the lungs, which can affect blood flow from the body into the lungs; and it often means there's more force on the chest wall, and many congenital heart patients have surgical scars in the chest that can be damaged, particularly in the first year after surgery,” wrote the AHA in a separate statement.

In general, any amount of activity is better than none, and the more physically active a person is, the greater the anticipated cardiovascular benefit. Guidelines for the general population suggest at least 30 minutes of dedicated aerobic activity a day for five or more days a week.

The American Heart Association released the statement at the end of April. It will be published in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 1, 2013
Last Updated:
August 14, 2013