There are some studies that suggest a higher intensity interval workout routine, such as those used by athletes, may be beneficial for patients with heart conditions.
High intensity interval training involves short bursts of intense exercise at 85-95% maximum heart rate. These short bursts are alternated with periods of moderate exercise. This workout method is frequently used by athletes to improve speed and endurance.
If this type of training were to be recommended for heart patients it’d be a change from the standard protocol of steady aerobic exercise at 70% maximum heart rate. This lower level of intensity is intended to work the heart without risking chest pain, heart attack, or other complication.
High intensity interval training is controversial and there is disagreement on whether or not this method should be used to treat heart patients that may suffer from heart failure, be recovering from bypass surgery, or living with coronary artery disease. However, studies are suggesting an exercise routine that includes high intensity interval training improves the body’s ability to transport oxygen more so than a lower intensity workout.
For example, a Norwegian study looked at the effects of a supervised high intensity treadmill workout on cardiac rehab patients. Results showed improved peak oxygen update that was better than the standard approach.
The Mayo Clinic started using high intensity interval training back in 2007 and may be one of the few clinics in the United States to do so early on in cardiac rehab. The method used is to gradually work up to 20 minutes of exercise at a moderate pace, typically on a treadmill. Then they incorporate 30 second bursts of higher intensity exercise, such as an increased incline at a faster pace. Eventually intervals are increased to 120 seconds in length according to Mayo Clinic program director of cardiovascular health and rehabilitation, Ray Squires.
More research is needed on the effect in heart patients. The American Heart Association states larger randomized, controlled studies are needed in higher-risk groups. There are also studies looking at the impact of high intensity interval training in individuals with high blood pressure and diabetes.
One thing to remember is the exercise intensity that equals 85-95% maximum heart rate differs between individuals. For an athlete it may take a sprint to work the heart up to this level, but for someone recovering from bypass surgery it may be a short walk. You start with where you are and work your way up.
Discuss your activity with your physician prior to beginning or changing your workout routine!
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All the best,
Lisa Nelson RD