A new study by The Heart Research Institute shows that patients born with a rare heart malformation can definitely boost their heart function by lifting weights. This challenges traditional thinking about the role of exercise in heart disease and has earned an international award for Dr. Rachael Cordina from the Clinical Research Group.
‘Fontan’ patients are born with a complex heart disease whereby the heart has only one main pumping chamber (called a ventricle), instead of the usual two. This causes a ‘traffic jam’ in the heart, as the oxygen-rich blood from the lungs mixes with the oxygen-poor blood returning from the body. “They’re very sick babies, because of the low oxygen levels,” says Rachael, who ran the study.
A partial fix for these children is the Fontan procedure, which is surgery to re-route the blood flow in the heart. This dramatically increases both life expectancy and quality of life. But Fontan patients only have half a working heart. Compared to ordinary people, they can still only manage limited exercise.
Rachael studied adults who had the Fontan surgery in childhood to see if she could improve their exercise capacity with strength training. “We took these people and we resistance trained them really intensively to build up muscle bulk… to help use the muscles in their legs as a pump to push blood up into the heart, instead of the heart doing all the work.” And it worked! After 20 weeks of strength training, the Fontan patients showed a 10% improvement in their exercise tolerance and greater than 10% improvement in their heart function.
Rachael’s research is challenging traditional thinking among doctors: “It’s a big thing for cardiologists… to start thinking that resistance training is okay.” In recognition of Rachael’s contributions to the field, she was recently honoured at the world’s largest cardiology conference, receiving an American Heart Association (AHA) Early Career Investigator Award.
Most importantly, this research will translate to a better quality of life and exercise capacity for Fontan patients.
Please note: Older adults and people with medical conditions should consult their doctor before undertaking any kind of intensive exercise program.
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