It’s a stark reality: heart disease is a leading cause of death and disability worldwide (1). Another fact: exercise is not only a key to prevention, it has been shown to benefit people who already have heart conditions (2,3). So it stands to reason that people with heart disease should be especially diligent about being physically active, right?
Unfortunately that’s not the case for many. Understandably, people with a heart condition worry that exercise might make matters worse, which can discourage them from being active (4,5). However, by not following doctors’ orders to be more physically active, many people actually put themselves at even greater health risk.
Can anything be done to encourage people with heart disease to exercise regularly? Physicians and other health care professionals believe health education – teaching, counselling and behaviour modification – can help change behaviours and promote heart healthy habits including the appropriate amounts, types and levels of physical activity. A recent well-done systematic review of 37 randomized controlled trials looked at whether health education programs do, in fact, change exercise behaviour for adults with heart disease (6).
The review included more than 10,000 adults with heart disease (average age ranging from 53 to 74) who participated in health education programs lasting from as little as a few days (during the patients’ stay in hospital) to as long as three years. The average program length was five months. Participants received information, counselling and encouragement through face-to-face meetings, telephone calls or printed materials.
What the research tells us
The evidence reported in the review shows that health education does help to motivate people with heart disease to be more active (6). Participants who took part in an education program exercised more often, for longer periods of time and at higher levels of intensity. The long-term benefits, however, were much less encouraging suggesting that people’s motivation and commitment to exercise may drop off when their health education program ends (6).
The review authors do stress that while future research should focus on finding ways to help people stick with their programs, health professionals should continue to encourage patients to join health education programs (6). These can give them the knowledge and confidence to exercise in ways that are safe, effective and heart healthy.
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