Wake Forest School of Medicine study tailors exercise program to heart failure patients to improve quality of life

Updated: Jun. 16, 2021 at 7:24 PM EDT
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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WBTV) - Researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine are studying how a customized rehabilitation program can improve the quality of life for heart failure patients.

According to the CDC, there are 6.2 million cases of heart failure in the U.S. each year. People suffering from heart failure experience shortness of breath and fatigue with normal levels of exertion.

Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Gerontology at Wake Forest School of Medicine, Dr. Dalane Kitzman, says many patients who are admitted to the hospital for heart failure rarely get back to living their old lives.

“These patients have serious disabilities. They have problems with balance, strength, walking and endurance,” Dr. Kitzman explained. “A variety of drugs and strategies that have been used to help this have not had much effect. That suggested to us that there was a factor that was overlooked.”

Dr. Kitzman and other researchers from Duke University and Thomas Jefferson assembled a team of rehabilitation experts to develop an exercise and rehabilitation program specific to patients who suffered from heart failure.

The study involved 350 participants who suffered from heart failure. The exercise program began immediately in the hospital. It continued for twelve weeks and patients were encouraged to continue exercising at home.

Dr. Kitzman explained that it is not a typical workout regimen. Instead, they focused on simple exercises to improve balance, strength, walking, and endurance.

“In order to increase balance, with their feet together and their hands at their side and then go to an aggressive wide stance, then stop and turn as abruptly as possible,” Dr. Kitzman said when giving an example of an exercise used in the program.

Pattie Miller was hospitalized with heart failure a few years ago. She enrolled in the program in hopes of getting back to an active lifestyle

“I was very frail,” Miller described. “I was truthfully lucky to be alive. I could do absolutely nothing because I was so weak.”

Though simple, Miller said the exercises were very challenging at the beginning, but after the 12-week-program she says she is walking four to five times a week and living an active lifestyle with her grandchildren.

“It changed my life and I’m a happy, busy grandmother today,” Miller said.

Dr. Kitzman says they were happy to hear that 83 percent of participants in the study continued to exercise six months after the program had ended. However, they also recognized there were no statistically significant different in rates of readmission.

He says people who suffered from diastolic heart failure (HFpEF) responded to the exercise program better than those who suffered from systolic heart failure.

The study’s findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Before the program can be implemented in other hospitals as a new standard of treating heart failure patients, Dr. Kitzman says a much larger study must be done to verify their findings.

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