Exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation for adults with heart failure

Cal Molloy, Linda Long, Ify R Mordi, Charlene Bridges, Viral A Sagar, Edward J Davies, Andrew JS Coats, Hasnain Dalal, Karen Rees, Sally J Singh, Rod S Taylor (Lead / Corresponding author)

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


BACKGROUND: People with heart failure experience substantial disease burden that includes low exercise tolerance, poor health-related quality of life (HRQoL), increased risk of mortality and hospital admission, and high healthcare costs. The previous 2018 Cochrane review reported that exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation (ExCR) compared to no exercise control shows improvement in HRQoL and hospital admission amongst people with heart failure, as well as possible reduction in mortality over the longer term, and that these reductions appear to be consistent across patient and programme characteristics. Limitations noted by the authors of this previous Cochrane review include the following: (1) most trials were undertaken in patients with heart failure with reduced (< 45%) ejection fraction (HFrEF), and women, older people, and those with heart failure with preserved (≥ 45%) ejection fraction (HFpEF) were under-represented; and (2) most trials were undertaken in a hospital or centre-based setting.

OBJECTIVES: To assess the effects of ExCR on mortality, hospital admission, and health-related quality of life of adults with heart failure.

SEARCH METHODS: We searched CENTRAL, MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, PsycINFO and Web of Science without language restriction on 13 December 2021. We also checked the bibliographies of included studies, identified relevant systematic reviews, and two clinical trials registers.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that compared ExCR interventions (either exercise only or exercise as part of a comprehensive cardiac rehabilitation) with a follow-up of six months or longer versus a no-exercise control (e.g. usual medical care). The study population comprised adults (≥ 18 years) with heart failure - either HFrEF or HFpEF.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: We used standard Cochrane methods. Our primary outcomes were all-cause mortality, mortality due to heart failure, all-cause hospital admissions, heart failure-related hospital admissions, and HRQoL. Secondary outcomes were costs and cost-effectiveness. We used GRADE to assess the certainty of the evidence.

MAIN RESULTS: We included 60 trials (8728 participants) with a median of six months' follow-up. For this latest update, we identified 16 new trials (2945 new participants), in addition to the previously identified 44 trials (5783 existing participants). Although the existing evidence base predominantly includes patients with HFrEF, with New York Heart Association (NYHA) classes II and III receiving centre-based ExCR programmes, a growing body of trials includes patients with HFpEF with ExCR undertaken in a home-based setting. All included trials employed a usual care comparator with a formal no-exercise intervention as well as a wide range of active comparators, such as education, psychological intervention, or medical management. The overall risk of bias in the included trials was low or unclear, and we mostly downgraded the certainty of evidence of outcomes upon GRADE assessment. There was no evidence of a difference in the short term (up to 12 months' follow-up) in the pooled risk of all-cause mortality when comparing ExCR versus usual care (risk ratio (RR) 0.93, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.71 to 1.21; absolute effects 5.0% versus 5.8%; 34 trials, 36 comparisons, 3941 participants; low-certainty evidence). Only a few trials reported information on whether participants died due to heart failure. Participation in ExCR versus usual care likely reduced the risk of all-cause hospital admissions (RR 0.69, 95% CI 0.56 to 0.86; absolute effects 15.9% versus 23.8%; 23 trials, 24 comparisons, 2283 participants; moderate-certainty evidence) and heart failure-related hospital admissions (RR 0.82, 95% CI 0.49 to 1.35; absolute effects 5.6% versus 6.4%; 10 trials; 10 comparisons, 911 participants; moderate-certainty evidence) in the short term. Participation in ExCR likely improved short-term HRQoL as measured by the Minnesota Living with Heart Failure (MLWHF) questionnaire (lower scores indicate better HRQoL and a difference of 5 points or more indicates clinical importance; mean difference (MD) -7.39 points, 95% CI -10.30 to -4.77; 21 trials, 22 comparisons, 2699 participants; moderate-certainty evidence). When pooling HRQoL data measured by any questionnaire/scale, we found that ExCR may improve HRQoL in the short term, but the evidence is very uncertain (33 trials, 37 comparisons, 4769 participants; standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.52, 95% CI -0.70 to -0.34; very-low certainty evidence). ExCR effects appeared to be consistent across different models of ExCR delivery: centre- versus home-based, exercise dose, exercise only versus comprehensive programmes, and aerobic training alone versus aerobic plus resistance programmes.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: This updated Cochrane review provides additional randomised evidence (16 trials) to support the conclusions of the previous 2018 version of the review. Compared to no exercise control, whilst there was no evidence of a difference in all-cause mortality in people with heart failure, ExCR participation likely reduces the risk of all-cause hospital admissions and heart failure-related hospital admissions, and may result in important improvements in HRQoL. Importantly, this updated review provides additional evidence supporting the use of alternative modes of ExCR delivery, including home-based and digitally-supported programmes. Future ExCR trials need to focus on the recruitment of traditionally less represented heart failure patient groups including older patients, women, and those with HFpEF.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberCD003331
Number of pages167
JournalThe Cochrane database of systematic reviews
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 7 Mar 2024


  • Humans
  • Cardiac Rehabilitation/methods
  • Exercise
  • Exercise Therapy
  • Heart Failure
  • Quality of Life


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