The answer is “yes”! Leading a physically active life is good for almost everyone, whether they have a heart condition or not. There are very few people who are advised not to take part in any physical activities.
In a recent report for the European Society of Cardiology, a group of experts stated:
“In general, children with a congenital heart disease should be advised to comply with public health recommendations of daily participation in 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity” (Takken et al 2011)
There are a number of reasons why being active is especially beneficial for young people with a heart condition:
1. Improved Fitness (exercise capacity)
Studies have shown that, on average, children and teenagers with congenital heart conditions have a lower level of fitness than other people of their age. Perhaps this is not surprising for more complex conditions. However, it has been found that even young people with relatively simple, mild conditions often have low levels of fitness. This can prevent them from participating fully in sports and other physical activities. It can also put young people off leading an active lifestyle.
With appropriate training, young people with a congenital heart condition can increase their cardiovascular fitness. This means they are able to exercise at a higher intensity and for a longer period of time. Improving cardiovascular fitness also makes it easier to participate at a particular level of physical activity.
2. Physical activity levels in young people
There are some concerns that many young people with a heart condition are much less physically active than they should be. Reduced fitness or symptoms of the heart condition may cause people to be less active. However, uncertainty about which activities are safe, parental concern and a lack of self-belief may also lead to low levels of physical activity.
Current National Guidelines state that youngsters should be doing at least 1 hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day. On average, young people are much less physically active than they should be. A 2008 study found only 33% of boys and 21% of girls aged 4 – 15 years were meeting the National Guidelines for Physical Activity. On average, young people tend to become less and less active as they go through the teenage years which highlights the importance of getting young people to engage in and enjoy being active from an early age.
3. Improving cardiovascular health
As we get older, our arteries lose some of their elasticity and become stiffer. This means that the heart has to work harder to pump blood. We also accumulate fatty deposits, called plaques, on the inner surface of the arteries. The formation of fatty plaques is termed ‘atherosclerosis’. This often leads to cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks and strokes, in later life.Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of ‘avoidable death’ in the UK.
There are several factors that increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis. These include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Family history
- Being overweight or obese
- Leading a sedentary lifestyle, with little physical activity.
Some congenital heart conditions may increase the risk of developing atherosclerosis at an earlier age than would normally be expected. Furthermore, people with a pre-existing heart condition may be more vulnerable and harder to treat if cardiovascular disease does occur in later life.
Clearly it makes good sense to reduce the risks of developing cardiovascular disease; regular physical activity has been found to do just that.
There are several ways in which leading an active lifestyle, with plenty of moderate-intensity physical activity, improves our cardiovascular health:
- Reduces high blood pressure
- Prevents the arteries from losing their elasticity and becoming stiff
- Helps to achieve or maintain a healthy body weight
- Removes unhealthy fats from the blood