Young girl in yellow kayak on the lake.

Fitness trackers help teens with heart disease

Innovative research pilot shows wearable fitness trackers motivate teens with congenital heart disease to be more active.

Breanna West had three open heart surgeries by the time she was four years old. The operations were needed to repair the heart defect she was born with, hypoplastic left heart syndrome.

Now Breanna (pictured above) is 14 and doing well, attending grade nine in Coquitlam, BC. But she still takes blood thinning medication and as a result her physical activity is restricted. She has to avoid sports like soccer and basketball, for example, where an injury could lead to excessive bruising or bleeding.

When Breanna learned about a research project aimed at helping kids like her be more physically active, she was eager to sign up.

Children who are living with congenital heart disease (CHD), like Breanna, are typically less active and less fit than other kids, said lead researcher Dr. Kevin Harris, a pediatric cardiologist at BC Children’s Hospital and the University of British Columbia.

Only an estimated seven per cent of Canadian children get the minimum recommended 60 minutes a day of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity. For kids with CHD, that proportion is likely even smaller.

Inactivity is taking a toll on their future health, Dr. Harris explained. “We want them to have healthy hearts for their whole lives.”

His team launched a small pilot study in the Vancouver area to see if they could increase activity levels among teens with CHD. They gave each of the test group participants – aged 13 to 16 – a wrist-worn activity tracker along with a personalized activity prescription from an exercise physiologist, based on their interests and their families’ resources. The kids could connect their trackers to a computer to share and compare their activity with friends.

Early results showed that most kids in the test group increased their activity, by amounts ranging from two to 25 minutes a day. And they reduced their sedentary time by up to six per cent. In the control group, activity levels decreased.

Perhaps more important, the teens in the test group seemed to have fun, Dr. Harris said. “The thing that’s been really rewarding is seeing how much the kids enjoyed using the technology.”

Breanna eagerly did the walks and other activities prescribed by the exercise physiologist, including shooting hoops and playing volleyball. She found the tracker a big motivator, said her mother, Karen West. “It was fun for her to go online. She wanted her record to look good.”

Now Dr. Harris and his team are working on expanding the research to include at least 50 children age 10 to 18. They want to further investigate the impact of the tracker plus exercise prescription on the activity levels and overall health of kids with CHD. Funding from the Heart and Stroke Foundation in BC is helping with this expansion. Dr. Harris is excited that it will allow the team to include children in remote areas – “the first time we have been able to offer this.”

For Breanna, the tracker worked so well that after the trial, her family bought her one of her own so she could keep up her newly active ways.

Dr. Harris recently presented results from the pilot study at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress.

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