As the parent of a child or as an adult with congenital heart disease, you may have questions about the safety of physical activities. This is an important topic to discuss with your treating physician. There are no “one-size-fits-all” recommendations.
Congenital heart disease isn’t just one form of disease. It’s a medical term that describes a wide variety of cardiac defects that are present at birth and that can range from very mild to immediately life threatening at birth. They may be diagnosed in utero (before birth), at birth, during childhood, or even in adulthood. In general, most patients with congenital heart disease that has been completely or partially corrected through surgery and/or an interventional procedure will benefit from exercise.
A report from leading physician groups, “Eligibility Recommendations for Competitive Athletes With Cardiovascular Abnormalities,” summarizes the current recommendations for physical activity for those with heart conditions.
The information below can serve as background to help you start a conversation with your treating physician about what level and types of physical activity may be right for you or your child.
Physical Activity and Children with Congenital Heart Disease
Physical activity requirements and potential restrictions for your child with a congenital heart defect will vary depending on the form of congenital heart disease, the types of treatments that have been performed, and that child’s developmental needs. As a parent, you will be rightly concerned about the risks of exercise; however, it is also important to balance this against your child’s need for regular physical activity and the health benefits and sense of self and friendships that can form around exercise and activity.
If your infant or toddler has been diagnosed with congenital heart disease, you should work with the child’s care team to develop a treatment plan. The child’s treating physician will offer guidance on what levels of activity are normal for your child. At this stage of growth, your child’s primary physical activity will involve feeding and achieving developmental milestones. Work with the child’s care team to be sure your infant is receiving enough nutrition to gain weight and achieve age-appropriate developmental milestones at an appropriate pace.
Children and Teens
Again, the amount of physical activity that is appropriate for your child will depend on the form of congenital heart disease and therapeutic interventions that have been performed. While some children will have activity restrictions, most children with congenital heart disease will be able to lead typical, active lives. Your child may be advised to avoid activities that can cause acute elevations in blood pressure, such as weight lifting or strenuous physical exertion, or impact sports, such as football or boxing. Additionally, if your child is taking blood thinners, this may affect which physical activities are suitable. Before your child participates in sports or physical education classes, discuss the safety of these activities with your child’s treating cardiologist. If activity restrictions are appropriate, be sure that your child’s school and any athletic coaches are aware of the guidelines.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor about Physical Activity for Children with Congenital Heart Disease
- Is my infant gaining enough weight considering his or her heart disease? Is there anything that I should do to improve my infant’s nutrition?
- What are the developmental milestones my infant or toddler should be reaching and at what age?
- What types of physical activities are safe for my child or teenager?
- What, if any, activities should my child or teenager avoid?
- Are there any warning signs that I should be looking for when my child is engaged in physical activity?
- What do I need to tell my child’s school or coach about his or her congenital heart disease?
- Are there any tests or treatments that should be performed before my child engages in physical activity?
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Adults with Congenital Heart Disease
After discussion with their cardiologist, most adults with congenital heart disease that is either mild or that has been corrected through surgery or interventional procedures will follow the same overall physical activity guidelines as adults without congenital heart disease. However, each individual is different, so it is important to discuss with your cardiologist the specifics of which physical activities are right for you.
Most people will want to strive for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and participate in muscle strengthening exercises at least twice a week. Your physician can help you determine if this target is right for you, and also help you choose appropriate activities and intensity levels. You may be advised to avoid activities that can cause extreme elevations in blood pressure, such as heavy weight lifting and sprinting-related exercises or impact sports or activities that carry a high risk of bleeding (especially if you are on medication that reduces your blood’s clotting ability).
Questions to Ask Your Doctor about Physical Activity for Adults with Congenital Heart Disease
- What types of physical activities do you recommend for me?
- Are there activities that I should avoid?
- For how long should I exercise, and at what intensity?
- Are there warning signs that I should look for when engaged in physical activity?
- When should we evaluate if a new activity or an increase in intensity level is safe for me?
- Are there any tests or treatments that should be performed before I engage in physical activity?
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