A diagnosis of heart failure can be devastating.  But it need not be as grim as it sounds.  For years, doctors warned against any physical activity that put stress on the heart.  Now a large study says supervised exercise is good for heart failure patients and can prolong their lives.  

When Lise Coleman was diagnosed with heart failure, she was advised to take it easy.

"I was scared to do anything," Coleman says.

Then she began to slowly build up her endurance by walking.  

"At first, people around me were walking real fast. I didn't care. I didn't care about them," she says. "I blocked them out and you just go at your own pace and you build endurance and you just stick with it."

Coleman is one of five million people in the United States and 15 million around the world who have heart failure.  Their numbers are increasing and have prompted the U.S. Heart, Lung and Blood Institute to call heart failure a "new epidemic."

Kathryn Flynn is with the Clinical Research Institute at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

"Heart failure is a condition in which the heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body's needs," Flynn.

Coleman is on medication to control some of the symptoms of heart failure: fatigue, shortness of breath, swelling in the legs.  

She also enrolled in a study which examined the effects of exercise on 2,300 patients with moderate to severe heart failure.  

The Duke Clinical Research Institute participated in the study. Patients were divided into two groups: one that exercised under supervision and one that was not required to exercise.  Both groups were later followed for about 30 months.

Dr. Christopher O'Connor and Kathryn Flynn led the study.

"First and foremost, we showed that exercise training is safe in patients with advanced heart disease," O'Connor says. "Second, we showed a modest improvement in clinical outcomes, a reduction in hospitalization or death."

"Patients in the exercise group reported improvements in their quality of life, greater than patients in the usual care group did," Flynn adds. "The difference between the two groups was modest, but it was statistically significant and the improvements occurred early and they were sustained over time."

Researchers acknowledged that only half of those assigned to the exercise group maintained their physical activity at the same level after the study ended.  

Coleman says she likes the way she feels after exercise.

"When you exercise, you're helping your heart pump the blood through your body.  You're helping your organs. You're helping yourself feel good.  And when you feel good, you can do more.  So exercise has been life-changing for me."

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.