Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: Water exercise safe for troubled hearts

Exercising in a pool is often recommended for people with stiff or painful joints. The water supports the body, which reduces the impact of stepping or jumping. Its resistance also gives muscles a good workout. Is aquatic exercise also a good option for heart attack survivors, people with heart failure, or others with compromised hearts? That's been a bit controversial.

Some experts have worried that simply standing in water up to the chest might strain the heart. That's because water pressure on the legs and arms squeezes blood into the chest, which could make the heart work harder.

French researchers explored the cardiac effects of exercising in water with the help of 48 people with either coronary artery disease or heart failure. Half were assigned to a structured exercise program that included daily calisthenics in a warm pool. The other half completed the same program but did their daily calisthenics on land. After three weeks, both groups experienced similar improvements in left ventricular function, blood pressure, resting heart rate, peak heart rate during exercise, and muscle power (Journal of Cardiac Failure, August 2011). Some of the improvements were slightly greater with aquatic exercise, but only a larger, longer study could determine if the difference was due to some additional benefit of exercising in water or to the small size of the study.

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