Living with heart failure: Improving your quality of life with exercise

The Bottom Line

  • Generally, between 50% and 75% of people die within 5 years of being diagnosed with Chronic Heart Failure (CHF). 
  • Compared to the rest of the population, people with CHF often experience lower physical functioning and quality of life—two important aspects of health and life. 
  • Exercise of any type, duration, frequency, intensity, or supervision level may lead to large improvements in both physical functioning and quality of life in people with CHF. 

Heart failure…the diagnosis can pack an emotional punch. However, there are ways lessen the blow on important aspects of your life.

Heart failure is a progressive condition in which your heart no longer pumps enough blood and oxygen throughout your body (1;2;3). High blood pressure, heart disease or heart attack, and certain types of medications or chemicals—such as alcohol or illicit drugs—are a few of the many potential causes of heart failure (1). In Canada alone, over 90,000 adults over the age of 40 are diagnosed with heart failure each year (6). Heart failure that occurs overtime, as opposed to suddenly, is known as Chronic Heart Failure (CHF) (1). Unfortunately, CHF is on the rise around the globe (4;5).

With about one-half to three-quarters of people dying within 5 years of their CHF diagnosis, such a diagnosis is more than enough to make you unsteady. Because your muscles and organs don’t get enough blood, completing everyday activities on your own can become difficult (2;7). Inevitably, your quality of life suffers (2;4;6). CHF is also very expensive for the health care system because of long, reoccurring (2), and unplanned hospital stays (5;8).

It’s no surprise, then, that after your CHF diagnosis you may find yourself struggling to cope with the stress of your new reality.

Although this paints a bleak picture, addressing those areas of your life that are negatively affected by CHF can make a big difference (2). One target is physical function—your ability to carry out the movements needed for everyday life (dressing, eating, etc.) and for activities that you enjoy (2;9). A second target is quality of life—your feelings about your position in life relative to your values, goals, and expectations (2;10). How you experience CHF can be just as important as the severity of your CHF (2;11).

So, if you have CHF, what can you do to improve these two target areas? One option is to stay active. The heart is a muscle, after all!

What the research tells us

recent systematic review looked at the effect of different types of exercise on physical function and quality of life in people with CHF. Both aerobic exercise and strength training, or a combination of the two, were evaluated; dance, yoga, and tai chi were not. Exercise was done 2 to 5 times per week, lasted between 10 and 60 minutes, and was carried out over 8 weeks to 10 years.

The review found that people with CHF who exercise may experience a large improvement in both physical function and quality of life. Interestingly, the researchers reported that exercise appeared to improve these outcomes regardless of the type of exercise, its duration, its frequency, or its intensity. It also didn’t seem to matter whether exercise was carried out at home or in a supervised setting.

If you have CHF, take heart—exercise of any kind may improve your quality of life, as well as your ability to independently go about your day-to-day activities and do the things you need and love to do (2). For your own safety, remember to discuss any changes in your treatment plan, even the addition of exercise, with your health care provider first.

Learn more about how to live with heart failure with our other blogs in the series:

Living with heart failure: Effective self-care is key to coping well

Living with heart failure: How to avoid hospital re-admission

Featured Resources

Get the latest content first. Sign up for free weekly email alerts.
Author Details


  1. Harding M. Congestive heart failure. [Internet] 2018. [cited May 2019].
  2. Palmer K, Bowles KA, Paton M, et al. Chronic heart failure and exercise rehabilitation: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2018; 99(12):2570-2582. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2018.03.015.  
  3. Inamdar AA, Inamdar AC. Heart failure: Diagnosis, management and utilization. J Clin Med. 2016; 5:62. doi: 10.3390/jcm5070062. 
  4. Long L, Mordi IR, Bridges C, et al. Exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation for adults with heart failure. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2019; (1):CD003331. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003331.pub5.  
  5. Braunwald E. The war against heart failure: The Lancet lecture. Lancet. 2015; 385(9970):812-824. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(14)61889-4.
  6. Government of Canada. Heart disease in Canada: Highlights from the Canadian Chronic Disease Surveillance System. [Internet] 2017. [cited May 2019]. Available from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/diseases-conditions/heart-disease-canada-fact-sheet.html
  7. Davies EJ, Moxham T, Rees K, et al. Exercise training for systolic heart failure: Cochrane systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur J Heart Fail. 2010; 12:706-715. doi: 10.1093/eurjhf/hfq056.
  8. Cook C, Cole G, Asaria P, et al. The annual global economic burden of heart failure. Int J Cardiol. 2014; 171:368‐376. doi: 10.1016/j.ijcard.2013.12.028.
  9. Painter P, Stewart AL, Carey S. Physical functioning: Definitions, measurement, and expectations. Adv Ren Replace Ther. 1999; 6(2):110-123. 
  10. The WHOQOL Group. The World Health Organization quality of life assessment (WHOQOL): Position paper from the World Health Organization. Soc Sci Med. 1995; 41:1403-1409.
  11. Coelho R, Ramos S, Prata J, et al. Heart failure and health related quality of life. Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health. 2005; 1:19.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of these blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations such as social distancing and frequent hand washing. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with current social distancing recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

Want the latest in aging research? Sign up for our email alerts.

Support for the Portal is largely provided by the Labarge Optimal Aging Initiative. AGE-WELL is a contributing partner. Help us to continue to provide direct and easy access to evidence-based information on health and social conditions to help you stay healthy, active and engaged as you grow older. Donate Today.

© 2012 - 2020 McMaster University | 1280 Main Street West | Hamilton, Ontario L8S4L8 | +1 905-525-9140 | Terms Of Use