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Sickle cell disease affects blood flow in the body. Because strenuous exercise boosts blood flow, it can lead to heart problems and severe pain in someone with sickle cell. As a result, many patients are advised to avoid all types of exercise.
However, this study adds to growing evidence that low-to-moderate intensity workouts can be helpful.
"When physical exercise is tailored to be light-to-moderate in intensity, the risk of problems is limited," said lead author Laurent Messonnier, of Universite Savoie Mont Blanc, in France.
The study included 40 patients who were randomly assigned to either follow their normal lifestyle in which they did limited physical activity, or to take part in 40-minute moderate-intensity stationary bicycle workouts three times a week. The workouts were individually tailored.
After eight weeks, muscle tissue from participants' thighs was biopsied. The samples showed that those in the exercise group had a significant increase in the density of small blood vessels called capillaries, the number of capillaries around muscle fiber, and the surface area through which oxygen and nutrients can flow between blood and muscle.
Previous research has found that sickle cell disease can cause a decrease in blood vessels in muscle. The study findings suggest that moderate-intensity exercise may help counteract this and improve blood and oxygen delivery to tissues, according to the researchers.
The investigators also found that the exercise group had significant improvements in their muscle function and overall physical ability, and that some patients reported improvements in sleep, concentration and social interactions.
No serious problems occurred in the exercise group, according to the study. The results were published Nov. 19 in the journal Blood.
Performed regularly, this type of exercise may induce benefits that improve patients' physical abilities and quality of life, Messonnier said in a news release from the American Society of Hematology.
However, further research is needed to learn more about the benefits and risks of exercise in people with sickle cell disease, Messonnier added.
-- Robert Preidt
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