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In heart failure -- also called congestive heart failure -- the heart doesn't pump blood well enough to meet the body's needs. About 5.7 million adult Americans have heart failure, according to the American Heart Association.
One expert not connected with the study said interventions that work are needed.
"Heart failure, which is a debilitating, chronic condition often associated with multiple hospitalizations, and is a financial burden on our health care system, may improve with exercise," said Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "Recommendations to treat heart failure should clearly include an exercise component, as the benefits are those that can help improve the clinical status in these otherwise sick patients," she said.
The new study included 60 heart failure patients and 60 healthy people who did either four weeks of supervised aerobic training or no exercise. Half of the participants were 55 and younger and half were 65 and older.
The exercise group undertook four 20-minute training sessions per day, five days a week. They also did one 60-minute group exercise session that focused on muscle endurance and oxygen uptake (a measure of aerobic endurance).
Among heart failure patients who exercised, those aged 55 and younger increased their peak oxygen uptake by 25 percent and those aged 65 and older increased it by 27 percent.
According to Steinbaum, those finding demonstrate that "these beneficial effects [of exercise] are not age-dependent."
The study also found that the exercise program slowed muscle wasting in the heart failure patients and improved their leg muscle strength and overall exercise capacity, regardless of age.
The findings suggest that exercise benefits even elderly heart failure patients, the researchers said.
The study appears May 7 in the journal Circulation.
"Many physicians -- and insurance companies -- still believe that cardiac rehabilitation does not really help in old age. This study clearly falsifies this belief," lead co-author Dr. Stephan Gielen, deputy director of cardiology at the University Hospital, Martin Luther University of Halle, Germany, said in a journal news release.
"Exercise switches off the muscle-wasting pathways and switches on pathways involved in muscle growth, counteracting muscle loss and exercise intolerance in heart failure patients," he explained.
-- Robert Preidt
Copyright © 2012 HealthDay. All rights reserved.
SOURCE: Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, preventive cardiologist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Circulation, news release, May 3, 2012