Strength Training for Heart Failure Patients

Rather than avoiding being active, heart failure patients can and should exercise. Before starting an exercise program, congestive heart failure patients should consult their doctor to find out what types of exercise and what level of activity is considered safe for them.

Weight training for heart failure patients can be an effective way to improve heart health. The benefits of this type of exercise include the following:

  • Increased strength
  • Higher level of endurance
  • Lowers catecholamine (chemical messenger) levels in the body that can over-stimulate the heart (and possibly cause harm to a person in heart failure)
  • Increases bone density
  • Increases nitric oxide production in the body, which helps to relax arteries

A heart failure patient who is performing weight training as a fitness activity may find that doing so helps to reduce his or her heart failure symptoms when performing daily living activities.

Muscle Loss in Heart Failure Patients

A person in heart failure may have already experienced some muscle loss. The individual’s health condition means lower blood flow to the muscles and organs in the body. As a result, performing any kind of activity is challenging.

More than two-thirds of people with congestive heart failure have muscle atrophy, according to one study. This condition causes loss of muscle tissue, resulting in weakness.

Muscle atrophy also leads to poor posture and effects the way a person walks. Balance can be thrown off, which increases the risk of a slip and fall injury. Recovering from an injury is slower than normal, since the muscle fibers themselves have changed due to this condition.

Advantages of Strength Training for Heart Failure Patients

Aerobic exercise for people in heart failure helps to strengthen the heart muscle, but it doesn’t help them to develop muscle strength in their arms, shoulders or chest. Strength training keeps muscles healthy and helps the participant build lean muscle.

Heart failure patients produce a lower level of an enzyme called nitric oxide synthase. This is the substance that releases nitric oxide from the cells found in the lining of the blood vessels. Nitric oxide relaxes the blood vessels, which helps to ease the symptoms of heart failure.

Strength training increases the nitric oxide synthase levels in the body, and provides some symptom relief by increasing the level of pressure on the tissue lining the blood vessels and the heart (the endothelium). The change in the pressure means more nitric oxide will be released and the blood vessels will start to relax, allowing blood to move though more easily. Lifting weights regularly means the individual in heart failure will feel experience less shortness of breath and be less tired when performing physical activities.

Treatment Options for Congestive Heart Failure

Once a patient has been diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure (CHF), the doctor will suggest a course of treatment. The actual plan will vary from patient to patient, and depend on how serious the condition is. If the case of heart failure is relatively mild, the doctor may suggest that the patient make some lifestyle changes to deal with the symptoms of this disorder which include:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in the lower extremities

Lifestyle changes that can help to reduce the symptoms of CHF include lowering salt intake and increasing physical activity. The doctor may also suggest that the patient abstain from consuming alcohol.

Medications for Congestive Heart Failure

Along with lifestyle changes, the doctor may prescribe medications to treat CHF. One of the options available is a type of drugs known as Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme (ACE) inhibitors. This type of medication may also be prescribed for high blood pressure.


It dilates the arteries, which lowers the strain on the heart and makes it easier for the cells in the body to stay supplied with oxygenated blood.

Since CHF can also make the heart work harder since the condition interferes with its ability to pump strongly, BETA blockers may also be prescribed. This type of medication helps the heart to relax and takes some of the strain off of it as it pumps. BETA blockers may be prescribed for mild to moderate cases of CHF.

The dosage of the BETA blockers must be regulated carefully, since this drug has a number of side effects, including low blood pressure, nausea, weakness, and difficulty breathing. The dosage of the BETA blockers may be slowly increased over several months until the correct amount of the medication is found.

Are You at Risk for Congestive Heart Failure?

Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) is a condition where the heart isn’t pumping strongly enough to keep the body’s cells well supplied with oxygen-rich blood. As a result, the lungs and tissues in the body become congested (they fill up with fluid).

People over the age of 40 are at risk for developing CHF. More than five million Americans have this condition and the general population has a 1 in 5 chance of developing it during their lifetime. Approximately 400,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

Risk Factors for Congestive Heart Failure

You may be at risk for developing congestive heart failure if any of the following criteria fit your personal situation:

  • Coronary artery diseas
  • Heart valve disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Previous heart attack

People with congenital heart defects are also at increased risk for congestive heart failure. A history of alcohol and/or drug abuse can also lead to CHF.

Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure

The symptoms that a patient experiences indicates which side of the heart is not working properly. People who complain of feeling short of breath, fatigue and coughing at night are probably experiencing a problem with the left side of the heart. These symptoms are caused by fluid and blood backing up into the lungs.

When the difficulty is a malfunction of the right side of the heart, the CHF patient may experience swollen feet, legs and ankles. The swelling, known as edema, may spread up to the liver, stomach and lungs. Frequent urination, especially at night, may be a symptom of CHF. Fluid buildup makes it more difficult for the kidneys to function, which eventually leads to kidney failure.

Diagnosing Congestive Heart Failure

When a patient sees his or her doctor complaining of shortness of breath and swelling in the lower extremities, the doctor may order a chest x-ray to look for evidence of fluid in the lungs and an enlarged heart. An electrocardiogram (EKG) may be ordered to check for an irregular heartbeat.

Once congestive heart failure has been diagnosed, there are treatment options available.

Treatment for Congestive Heart Failure

If you have been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, it means that your heart isn’t pumping strongly enough to pump blood throughout your body. This condition can be caused by high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, or a previous heart attack that damaged the muscle. Congenital heart defects can also cause congestive heart failure.

See your doctor if you notice your legs or ankles swelling, or if you start to feel short of breath. Congestive heart failure can be treated. Your doctor may suggest that you change your diet and make sure that you get enough rest. Medications to expand the blood vessels or improve the heart’s pumping action may be prescribed. The doctor may also put you on diuretics to get rid of excess fluid in the body.

The underlying cause of the congestive heart failure should be investigated and treated, if possible.