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Heart failure: Do exercise programs help people stay fit?

Last Update: August 27, 2014; Next update: 2017.

Many people with heart failure avoid strenuous activities. For some people, though, the opposite would be a good idea: Specialized, targeted exercise programs can help to increase their physical fitness and quality of life.

Heart failure (or congestive heart failure) is the name for a group of illnesses that affect the heart’s ability to pump blood through the body. Heart failure can have different causes: It is often caused by a heart attack or a coronary heart disease, but it might also develop gradually due to constant high blood pressure.

Heart failure means that the heart does not pump enough blood around the body anymore, so the organs, muscles and other tissue are not supplied with enough oxygen. The resulting symptoms like shortness of breath can be scary and may make people with heart failure decrease their physical activities. But if you get less physical exercise, your physical fitness can be affected – along with your quality of life and independence.

Specialized, targeted exercise programs have been devised to break this vicious cycle without them being overly strenuous for people with heart failure. Your doctor can help you find a suitable exercise group.

Research has shown that exercise can improve both fitness and quality of life

Researchers from the Cochrane Collaboration – an international research network – wanted to find out whether exercise programs are worthwhile and safe for people who have heart failure. They looked at the results from 34 studies involving more than 4,700 participants. Most participants were between 50 and 80 years old and had mild or moderate heart failure.

The results confirm that people with heart failure can benefit from exercise: Participants improved their physical performance and could move, run and work more easily than people who had not participated in a program. They also rated their quality of life higher and needed to go to the hospital less often for heart problems.

The studies showed the following:

  • Without exercise, about 12 in 100 people needed to go to the hospital within one year.
  • With exercise, about 7 in 100 participants needed to go to the hospital within one year.

This means that the exercise programs prevented 5 out of 100 people from having to go to the hospital because of heart failure.

The studies did not show any signs of risk related to the exercise programs. Participants of these programs may even have slightly better life expectancy in the long term. However, more studies are needed to be sure of this.

Endurance training for the heart muscle

In most studies participants trained their endurance with brisk walking, running, or indoor or outdoor cycling. The amount of exercise varied from study to study. Participants exercised two to seven times a week from 15 to 120 minutes. In some cases, intensity was increased over the course of the program.


  • Taylor RS, Sagar VA, Davies EJ, Briscoe S, Coats AJ, Dalal H, et al. Exercise-based rehabilitation for heart failure. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2014; (4) :CD003331.
  • IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

    Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. We do not offer individual consultations.

    Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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IQWiG (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care)

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