Physical limitations when you have heart failure

Daily activities. If you have heart failure, you may find that your symptoms make it difficult to do things like cook, clean, bathe, or shop. You can deal with these limitations in various ways. For example, you can rearrange your kitchen to make cooking easier or put a stool in your shower so that you can sit down. You can also get help from other people. Housekeeping services will clean your house and other services will deliver groceries and other goods to your home. You may also have friends or family members who can help you with some of the day-to-day activities that are difficult for you.

Exercise. In general, it is important to keep as physically fit as possible. Moderate aerobic exercise is not only safe but advisable for people with heart failure. Moderate exercise such as walking, climbing stairs, or swimming can help keep you fit. Intense exercise, including weight-lifting and exercises that require you to push against a heavy resistance (like push-ups), are not safe for people with heart failure; these types of exercises can raise your blood pressure and make your heart work harder. You should avoid activities that involve sudden physical exertions that make your heart work a lot harder than it does when you are resting.

Any exercise program you begin should advance gradually. You should discuss the details of your program with your doctor. Your doctor can help you with the type and degree of exercise that is safe for you.

Sexual activity. Most people with heart failure can still lead an active sex life. To decrease the stress placed on your heart, you should avoid sexual activity in extremely hot or humid weather, when you are under stress, and directly after a meal. You should also not drink alcohol for at least 3 hours before sex. If you feel lightheaded or experience chest pain, palpitations, or a rapid heart rate while engaging in sexual activity, stop what you are doing. Let your doctor know about these episodes.

Some men with heart failure may experience impotence, but effective therapies are now available to help with this problem. You should discuss with your doctor whether sexual intercourse is safe for you.

Driving. Most people with heart failure can safely drive a car. However, you should not drive if you are experiencing confusion or taking prescription pain drugs. If you have had a serious arrhythmia or have ever fainted as a result of your heart failure, you should talk with your doctor about your ability to drive.

Travel. In general, all forms of travel are safe for people with mild to moderate heart failure. Always carry the names and phone numbers of your doctors in case you become ill while you're away from home. You may also want to carry a list of your major medical problems and hospitalizations and an up-to-date list of your drugs (including both the names and dosages), in case you must be hospitalized in an unfamiliar hospital. You should bring a supply of drugs for several days longer than your intended trip to make sure that you do not run out.

If you have severe heart failure and limited mobility, you may need to discuss with your doctor the need for taking anticoagulants to prevent blood clots during travel. If you have very advanced heart failure, you may require oxygen for plane travel and should consult your doctor ahead of time to find out whether this is needed.

Work. Many people with heart failure can continue to work full time for many years. Your particular situation will depend on the cause and severity of your heart failure, as well as the demands of your job. Your doctor may help you decide the appropriate level of work you can do. Your doctor may order a stress test to help evaluate the endurance of your heart. If you and your doctor decide that you should not stay in your current job, you can consider other options. For example, you could switch to a less strenuous occupation.

Last Updated: August 25, 2008

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