How Do You Prescribe Exercise in Primary Prevention?

Natalia Martínez Medina, MD

September 07, 2023

To avoid cardiovascular disease, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends performing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week, 75 minutes of intense aerobic activity every week, or a combination of both, preferably spread out throughout the week. But how knowledgeable are physicians when it comes to prescribing exercise, and how should patients be assessed so that appropriate physical activity can be recommended?

In a presentation titled, "Patient Evaluation and Exercise Prescription in Primary Prevention," Thelma Sánchez Grillo, MD, a cardiologist at the Clínica Bíblica Hospital in San José, Costa Rica, explained the benefits and risks of exercise and gave recommendations for proper patient assessment before prescribing physical activity.

"Exercise has cardioprotective, emotional, antiarrhythmic, and antithrombotic benefits, and it reduces stress," she explained.

She also noted that the risk regarding cardiopulmonary and musculoskeletal components must be evaluated, because exercise can itself trigger coronary events, and the last thing intended when prescribing exercise is to cause complications. "We must recommend exercise progressively. We can't suggest a high-intensity regimen to a patient if they haven't had any preconditioning where collateral circulation could be developed and lung and cardiac capacity could be improved."

Sánchez went on to say that, according to the AHA, patients should be classified as follows: those who exercise and those who don't, those with a history of cardiovascular, metabolic, or renal disease, and those with symptomatic and asymptomatic diseases, in order to consider the parameters when recommending exercise.

"If the patient has symptoms and is doing light physical activity, like walking, they can keep doing this exercise and don't need further assessments. But if they have a symptomatic disease and are not exercising, they need to be evaluated after exercise has been prescribed, and not just clinically, either. Some sort of diagnostic method should be considered. Also, for patients who are physically active and who desire to increase the intensity of their exercise, the recommendation is to perform a detailed clinical examination and, if necessary, perform additional imaging studies."

Warning Signs

  • Dizziness

  • Orthopnea

  • Abnormal heart rate

  • Edema in the lower extremities

  • Chest pain, especially when occurring with exercise

  • Intermittent claudication

  • Heart murmurs

  • Dyspnea

  • Reduced output

  • Fatigue

Calibrating Exercise Parameters

The parameters of frequency (number of sessions per week), intensity (perceived exertion measured by heart rate reached), time, and type (aerobic exercise vs strength training) should be considered when forming an appropriate prescription for exercise, explained Sánchez.

"The big problem is that most physicians don't know how to prescribe it properly. And beyond knowing how, the important thing is that, when we're with the patient during the consultation, we ought to be doing more than just establishing a routine. We need to be motivators and we need to be identifying obstacles and the patient's interest in exercise, because it's clear that incorporating physical activity into our daily lives helps improve the quality and length of life," the specialist added.

The recommendations are straightforward: for individuals aged 18 to 64 years, 50 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, whether aerobic, strength training, or mixed, should be prescribed. "We need to encourage moving more and sitting less, and recommend comprehensive programs that include coordination, balance, and muscle strengthening. If a sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor, we need to encourage patients to start performing physical activity for 1 to 2 minutes every hour, because any exercise must be gradual and progressive to avoid complications," she noted.

Evaluate, Then Recommend

The specialist emphasized the importance of making personalized prescriptions, exercising caution, and performing adequate assessments to know which exercise routine to recommend. "The patient should also be involved in their self-care and must have an adequate diet and hydration, and we need to remind them that they shouldn't be exercising if they have an infection, due to the risk of myocarditis and sudden death," she added.

Rafaelina Concepción, MD, cardiologist from the Dominican Republic and vice president of the Inter-American Society of Cardiology for Central America and the Caribbean, agreed with the importance of assessing risk and risk factors for patients who request an exercise routine. "For example, in patients with prediabetes, it has been shown that exercising can slow the progression to diabetes. The essential thing is to use stratification and know what kind of exercise to recommend, whether aerobic, strength training, or a combination of the two, to improve functional capacity without reaching the threshold heart rate while reducing the risk of other comorbidities like hypertension, obesity, and high lipids, and achieving lifestyle changes."

Carlos Franco, MD, a cardiologist in El Salvador, emphasized that there is no such thing as zero risk when evaluating a patient. "Of course, there's a difference between an athlete and someone who isn't physically active, but we need to profile all patients correctly, evaluate risk factors in detail, not overlook subclinical cardiovascular disease, and check whether they need stress testing or additional imaging to assess cardiac functional capacity. Also, exercise must be prescribed gradually, and the patient's nutritional status must be assessed."

Franco ended by explaining that physicians must understand how to prescribe the basics of exercise and make small interventions of reasonable intensity, provide practical advice, and, to the extent possible, rely on specialists such as physiatrists, sports specialists, and physical therapists.

Follow Natalia Martínez Medina of Medscape Spanish Edition on X (previously known as Twitter) @nataliamame.

This article was translated from the Medscape Spanish Edition.


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