Harvard Heart Letter

Leg workouts improve exercise capacity in people with heart failure

People with heart failure often can't do the mild to moderate exercise, such as walking, that benefits them so much. They're limited mostly by breathing difficulties caused by their heart's subpar pumping ability.

One way out of this predicament may be found in a small study from the University of California, San Diego. Researchers found that an eight-week thigh-strengthening regimen that's easy on the heart can improve the ability of people with heart failure to ride an exercise bike.

The study involved six men with mild to moderate heart failure. Researchers first measured their initial overall fitness using an exercise bike. The men then took part in an eight-week course of thigh-strengthening knee-extension exercises. Instruments that measured microscopic activity in the participants' muscles and blood vessels showed that the leg workouts boosted the flow of oxygen from the bloodstream into the muscles by 53% without making the heart work harder. After the eight weeks of leg work, the men were able to ride the exercise bike longer and harder than before, equaling the bike-riding ability of a similar group of men without heart failure (Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Sept. 20, 2011).

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