New guidelines on sports cardiology from the European Society of Cardiology break fresh ground by green-lighting participation in vigorous competitive sports by selected patients with stable coronary artery disease, heart failure, or mild arrhythmias.
These liberalized guidelines, released at the virtual annual congress of the European Society of Cardiology, thus move well beyond the standard exercise advice to engage in about 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity, typically defined as brisk walking or its equivalent.
The guidelines reflect a conviction that exercise is powerful medicine for patients with cardiovascular disease and also affords a means to help curb the epidemics of diabetes and obesity that drive cardiovascular risk, according to Antonio Pelliccia, MD, who cochaired the 24-member task force of European and American experts that developed the guidelines.
In a session highlighting the new sports cardiology guidelines, Mats Borjesson, MD, head of the Center for Health and Performance at Gothenburg (Sweden) University, summarized the section devoted to patients with stable coronary artery disease: “If you have established CAD and a low risk of adverse events during exercise, you are eligible for high-intensity exercise and competitive sports. But if you have persistent ischemia despite medical treatment, or symptoms, then you’re only eligible for leisure-time subthreshold activity.”
Dr. Pelliccia put this new recommendation into context.
“We are not talking anymore in this particular disease just about cardiac rehabilitation or leisure-time activity, but we are also opening the border and talking about competitive sports activity in selected patients where you have the evidence for low risk of exercise-induced adverse events. This is a major achievement now for what is the major disease in our adult population,” said Dr. Pelliccia, chief of cardiology at the Institute of Sports Medicine and Science at the Italian National Olympic Committee and professor of sports cardiology at La Sapienza University of Rome.
The recommendation for individualized consideration of all types of exercise, even including vigorous competitive sports, in low-risk patients with CAD gets a class IIa, level of evidence (LOE) C recommendation in the new guidelines. That’s a big step down from a ringing class Ia endorsement, but since sports cardiology is a relatively young field with little evidence that’s based on randomized trials, the guidelines are rife with many other class IIa, LOE C recommendations as well.
“The level of evidence is rather low, so these guidelines are very much the personal perspective of the expert panel,” explained Martin Halle, MD, professor and head of the department of prevention, rehabilitation, and sports cardiology at Technical University of Munich.
The high-risk features for exercise-induced cardiac adverse events in patients with longstanding stable CAD, as cited in the guidelines, include a critical coronary stenosis, defined as a more than 70% lesion in a major coronary artery or a greater than 50% stenosis in the left main, and/or a fractional flow reserve score of less than 0.8; a left ventricular ejection fraction of 50% or less with wall-motion abnormalities; inducible myocardial ischemia on maximal exercise testing; nonsustained ventricular tachycardia; polymorphic or very frequent ventricular premature beats at rest and during maximum stress; and a recent acute coronary syndrome (ACS). These features call for an exercise prescription tailored to remain below the patient’s angina and ischemia thresholds.
“It’s important for cardiologists out there to understand that we definitely need a maximal exercise test. In somebody who is running and has an ACS and then wants to start running again, 200 watts on an ergometer is too low. We have to push them up to the end, and then if everything is okay – left ventricular function is okay, no ischemia, no arrhythmias under exercise testing – then it’s fine,” Dr. Halle said.
Dr. Pelliccia added that close follow-up is needed, because this is an evolving disease.”