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Gentle body-building may help heart disease patients


31 July 2003
New research at Southern Cross University (SCU) is looking at whether weight training can deliver greater benefits to people with serious heart disease than the standard treatment of aerobic exercise. Early results suggest it may.

The study, being led by Masters student Itamar Levinger, in SCU’s School of Exercise Science and Sport Management, is being carried out in collaboration with two cardiologists at John Flynn Hospital on the Gold Coast, Dr David Cody and Dr Ian Linton.

“Cardiovascular disease caused 40 per cent of all deaths in Australia in 1999, and the economic impact is estimated at $3.9 billion annually," Mr Levinger said. "There’s no doubt that it is the biggest killer in Australia and the industrialised world.

“The prognosis of people with heart failure is poor, despite recent improvements to medication and treatment, compared to other diseases,” he said. “That’s why I want to investigate other types of treatment such as exercise.”

The research team is investigating men with poor left ventricular function, called heart ‘failure.’ All cardiovascular disease can lead to heart failure, but it is mainly caused by coronary artery disease and/or high blood pressure, especially in people over 60.

“Cardiac patients are characterised by reduced muscle strength, and reduced functional capacity such as when walking or climbing stairs,” Mr Levinger said. “They get tired very easily, suffer shortness of breath, and have a reduced quality of life.

“The main rehabilitation program for them currently is aerobic exercise, like walking or cycling, but this type of exercise cannot increase muscle strength. In order to increase muscle, you need to overload or put pressure on the muscle.

“It’s already been proven that increasing patients’ muscle strength improves their confidence and independence, and may prevent osteoperosis, obesity and other chronic conditions.”

So far, eight male patients have been involved in seven weeks of study for about an hour three times a week in the Hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation centre.

“They are noticing increased strength and quality of life, and with every week they say they feel an improvement: they can do things that they couldn’t do before, or it’s easier to do things,” Mr Levinger said.

The researchers are still looking for volunteers. They need eight more men, aged 40 to 75, who were diagnosed with heart failure. Specifically, those with ejection fraction (the amount of blood the heart ejects) of less than 45 per cent, who are taking beta-blocker medication and don’t smoke.

“In the past, resistance training was forbidden for people with heart failure mainly because of concern about the effect of increased blood pressure on the heart,” Mr Levinger said. “However, in recent years we have more information showing it’s safe for patients with heart disease: the pressure on the heart is not greater than aerobic training. On the contrary, it’s less.”

All previous studies involving weight training have been done in combination with aerobic exercise, making it impossible to distinguish the effects of each separately.

“We are the first to give patients pure resistance training, with minimal involvement of aerobic training,” Mr Levinger said.

The study involves eight to ten weeks of resistance training, including gentle weight lifting, and pushing weights, and a week-and-a-half of testing either side.

While patients are reporting feeling better, researchers will have to wait till the end of the study to see if there is an improvement in heart function or respiratory function.

This is the first study involving SCU with doctors at the John Flynn Hospital. In a co-operative effort, a fitness company has loaned the resistance training machines for the study, and a pharmaceutical company which make beta-blockers is partly funding the project.

Anyone interested in taking part in the study can contact Itmar Levinger, Ph: 02 6626 9165 at Southern Cross University, or Email: [email protected].

NB It is possible to take a photo or film Itmar Levinger and cardiologists at the John Flynn Hospital on the Gold Coast on Mon, Wed or Fri, with notice.

Media: for further information contact: Sara Crowe or Kath Duncan, Media Liaison, Southern Cross University, Ph: 02 6620 3144.