Pulmonary hypertension (PH) is a rare, severe lung condition caused by narrowed or blocked pulmonary arteries. The disease is characterized by high blood pressure and affects the vessels responsible for transporting blood from the heart to the lungs. Because additional effort is needed to pump the blood, the right heart ventricle becomes stressed, which can lead to enlargement and weakening of the heart, and consequently, right heart failure.
While no cure currently exists for pulmonary hypertension, some treatments approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are designed to accompany lifestyle changes — including exercise — that can help patients cope with the disease.
When medically supervised, exercise can help patients improve symptoms that include shortness of breath (dyspnea); fatigue; dizziness or fainting spells (syncope); pressure or pain in the chest; swelling (edema) in the ankles, legs, and abdomen (ascites); a bluish color to the lips and skin (cyanosis); and irregular heartbeat.
However, the paradox of PH remains that exercise is made more difficult by the disease’s symptoms. The current FDA-approved therapies for PH are mostly designed to make exercise more tolerable for PH patients.
Benefits of exercise for PH patients
There is not a lot of substantial information regarding the impact of exercise on patients with PH, but it is generally believed by researchers that people with the disease can benefit from moderate and regular exercise.
Even patients with severe PH can see improvement from exercise because toned muscles use oxygen more efficiently than flaccid muscles. Regular exercise increases cardiovascular and muscular fitness, controls weight, and decreases the risk of systemic hypertension and heart disease. Additionally, while alleviating PH symptoms, exercise reduces the risk of other chronic disorders such as diabetes, improves mood, and combats depression.
Researchers John H. Newman, MD, and Ivan M. Robbins, MD, of Vanderbilt University, who authored the study, “Exercise Training in Pulmonary Hypertension – Implications for the Evaluation of Drug Trials,” strongly support their findings.
“Exercise training can have an impact on short-term functioning and well-being in selected patients with PH that is equal to the best current drug therapies,” they wrote in the study.
The study focused on the impact of a monitored exercise program compared with PH medications, though no standard exercise program or plan exists that can be followed by every PH patient.
But most importantly, before beginning exercise of any kind, patients with PH need to be extremely careful and consult with their physician for a safe and sensible regimen.
The risks of exercise for PH patients are largely unsubstantiated, but recently diagnosed patients, whose disease is not stable or controlled and who experience shortness of breath, should be extremely aware that exercise can lead to fainting, excess stress to the right side of the heart, and other serious complications.
Despite the importance of physical activity, PH symptoms can make it difficult for patients to find the appropriate, sensible type of exercise that works for them.
Patients should be advised about exercise according to the severity of the disease, but there are specific tips that can help increase safety and lead to encouraging results.
According to the “Recommendations for Exercise in Patients with PAH” Consensus Statement, issued by the Pulmonary Hypertension Association (PHA)’s Scientific Leadership Council, patients should discuss their limitations and capacities with a PH specialist first. Then, start slowly, avoid activities that push the body too hard, never exercise alone, avoid exercise outdoors in extreme hot or cold temperatures, and stop exercising if any ill feelings arise.
Additionally, patients can keep a regular eye on the oxygen saturation in their blood by using a pulse oximeter device at home during exercise.
Note: Pulmonary Hypertension News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.