Harvard Heart Letter

Ask the doctor: Can medications make the heart stronger, like exercise does?

Q. When a friend of mine had a stress test, his doctor gave him a medication to make his heart work harder, instead of having him run on a treadmill. Does that mean medications could replace exercise to strengthen the heart?

A. When a person can't or shouldn't exercise, doctors use medications instead of a treadmill to conduct a stress test. Some of these medicines (such as dobutamine) make heart muscles work harder; others (such as adenosine) widen the coronary arteries.

These are one-time alternatives to exercise that, given their side effects, must be administered with care. Exercise conditions your blood vessels to increase blood flow to the heart and other muscles when they are working harder. It improves the lungs' ability to oxygenate blood. And it strengthens muscles and makes them work more efficiently.

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