December 5, 2005

Study Finds Kids with Weak Hearts Can Exercise

CHICAGO -- Children born with heart defects who have traditionally been told not to exercise can improve their heart function through programs that involve exertion, according to a U.S. study published on Monday.

"With the approval of a pediatric cardiologist, and after careful exercise testing, exercise is generally safe and tolerable for children with congenital heart defects," said Jonathan Rhodes, a cardiologist at Children's Hospital in Boston who led the study.

The report said 15 of 16 children ages 8 to 17 who underwent a three-month rehabilitation program showed significant gains in heart function.

"These kids haven't exercised much. They've been told by coaches, doctors, parents and teachers, 'Oh, you can't exercise,"' Rhodes said. "Cardiac rehabilitation is not a component of most pediatric cardiology programs."

He said his hospital plans to open a formal cardiac rehabilitation program for children in 2006 or 2007.

The study's exercise program involved twice-weekly, hourlong sessions of stretching, aerobics and light weight-resistance exercises and included dance, calisthenics, kickboxing, jump rope, races and games.

All 16 children who completed the program had heart surgery or a nonsurgical procedure, and 11 of 16 had only one functional heart pumping chamber, meaning they were a "sick group," Rhodes said.

When the program was finished, 15 of the 16 children had significantly improved heart function, with the organ pumping more blood with each beat, delivering more oxygen.

The study was published in the December issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The report said congenital heart defects affect about eight of every 1,000 newborns in the United States.