Supervised aerobic exercise can benefit many patients with heart failure. But according to new research, lack of social support and practical barriers to physical activity - such as finance and child care - reduces the amount of time such patients spend exercising, which may have negative implications for health.

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Researchers say practical barriers to exercise - such as child care issues - and lack of social support are reducing the amount of time heart failure patients engage in exercise programs.

Lead author Dr. Lauren B. Cooper, of the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, NC, and colleagues publish their findings in Circulation: Heart Failure - a journal of the American Heart Association (AHA).

Around 5.1 million people in the US have heart failure, which occurs when the heart is unable to pump enough blood and oxygen around the body to support other organs.

While there are a number of medications that can help treat heart failure, certain lifestyle changes can offer significant benefits.

According to the AHA, participation in a structured exercise program - with permission from a health care provider - can help alleviate some symptoms of heart failure and may even slow disease progression.

But in this latest study, Dr. Cooper and colleagues have identified a number of factors that may reduce the amount of time heart failure patients spend engaging in such programs.

Exercise time much lower in patients with more practical barriers

To reach their findings, the team analyzed data from 2,279 patients with heart failure who were part of the study Heart Failure: A Controlled Trial Investigating Outcomes of Exercise Training (HF-ACTION).

Fast facts about heart failure
  • Coronary heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure are conditions that significantly increase the risk of heart failure
  • Around 50% of people who develop heart failure die within 5 years of diagnosis
  • Heart failure costs the US around $32 billion a year.

Learn more about heart failure

In this trial, patients were randomly allocated to one of two groups: usual care - without a prescription of any formal exercise program - or usual care plus a supervised exercise program. The exercise program involved 36 sessions over a 3-month period, before shifting to home-based exercise for a further 2 years.

Patients were also asked to complete a survey that assessed the extent to which 10 factors - such as finance, weather, transportation and child care - interfered with their ability to participate in an exercise program. The survey also assessed patients' perception of social support.

While patients in the exercise group who had the lowest perceived social support exercised for an average of 92 minutes a week, the team found those with the highest perceived social support spent more time exercising - an average of 118 minutes weekly.

What is more, the researchers found that patients with the fewest barriers to engagement in an exercise program spent significantly more time exercising than those with the most barriers, at 169 minutes a week and 79 minutes a week, respectively.

The team believes their findings have important implications for patients and their health care providers. Dr. Cooper adds:

"Patients, family members, and health care providers should work together to find solutions to the barriers preventing a patient from participating in a structured exercise program, because exercise programs can help patients manage their condition.

[...] Assessing a patient's social support system and barriers that may interfere with their exercise program may help medical professionals to customize exercise programs that better fit individual patient needs."

Exercise does not only benefit patients with heart failure. Medical News Today recently reported on a study that suggested short bursts of exercise can lower blood pressure in people with type 2 diabetes.