Exercise and a balanced diet help heart failure patients like Karen Nicole Smith maintain a full, active life.
Karen Nicole Smith couldn’t believe it when a nurse told her she should “get moving.”
She had survived a cardiac arrest, was managing kidney disease with dialysis and, on top of all that, she was trying to deal with heart failure.
That nurse knew there is a large body of research showing that physical activity can help people with heart failure reduce their symptoms and live longer. But to Karen Nicole, the idea of starting an exercise program felt impossible.
Heart failure is a serious condition where the heart muscle is damaged or weakened by disease, unable to pump blood efficiently. It can result from different causes; the most common is a heart attack. Karen Nicole’s heart failure was most likely caused by the stress the cardiac arrest and kidney disease placed on her heart.
There is no cure for heart failure but the condition can be managed by adopting healthy behaviours like getting exercise and eating a balanced diet.
“At the time, the idea of being active was scary to me,” says Karen Nicole, 43. Still, at the nurse’s urging, she reluctantly enrolled in a cardiac rehabilitation program close to her Kingston, Ont., home. Cardiac rehab programs specialize in helping people with different kinds of heart disease regain strength.
The program’s physiotherapist assigned Karen Nicole a goal of 4,000 steps daily. The first few weeks were a challenge. Terrified that she would collapse and not be found in time if she exercised outdoors, Smith created a makeshift walking path within the safety of her apartment. Then she clipped a pedometer to her waistband and began pacing back and forth.
“I was so scared I would fall,” she recalls. “I felt frail and weak. I didn’t feel confident.”
Gradually, with the help of her cardiac rehab team, Smith overcame her anxiety and increased her daily walking goal to 10,000 steps. She now walks or works out at the gym four to six times a week.
She also adopted a low-salt diet rich in vegetables and started doing yoga and meditation to help manage stress and speed her progress.
Four months after Karen Nicole began her lifestyle changes, doctors measured the strength of her heart and found its ejection fraction or EF (a measure of how well the heart pumps blood) had jumped from 21 to 58 per cent. A normal EF is between 54 and 74 per cent for females and 52 and 72 per cent for males.
To be clear, living well with heart failure is a complex journey. Setbacks are common even when you’re doing everything right like Karen Nicole. Nearly 30 per cent of heart failure patients suffer depression. Having some supports in place and knowing that dips in progress are normal can help safeguard a patient’s mental health.
“If your life begins to revolve around your illness you can get depressed. If before your incident you golfed or you spent time with your grandkids or went to yoga, it’s important to come back to it,” she says.
“One of the most important things I learned is that you can be a person with chronic illness and still be quite healthy and active.”
It’s important to trust and follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations for treatment, even when progress seems slow. Karen Nicole describes it as a balancing act between managing the condition and living well.
Hope for the future
Karen Nicole is one of an estimated 600,000 Canadians living with heart failure – a number that is expected to grow as our population ages.
The promising field of regenerative medicine offers future hope for heart failure patients like Karen Nicole. Researchers have already identified how to grow new, healthy heart cells from a patient’s own heart cells. The hope is that injecting these new cells back into the damaged areas of the heart muscle will improve the function of the heart by allowing the heart to repair itself from within.
But until that hope is realized through more research, Karen Nicole is determined to live in the moment while maintaining a healthy lifestyle and positive outlook.
Learn more about heart failure.