Exercise-based rehabilitation for coronary heart disease


Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the single most common cause of death globally. However, with falling CHD mortality rates, an increasing number of people live with CHD and may need support to manage their symptoms and reduce the chances of future problems such as heart attacks. Exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation aims to improve the health and outcome of people with CHD.

Study characteristics

We searched the scientific literature for randomised controlled trials (experiments that randomly allocate participants to one of two or more treatment groups) looking at the effectiveness of exercise-based treatments compared with no exercise in people of all ages with CHD. The search is current to July 2014.

Key results
This latest update identified 16 trials (3872 participants). We included a total of 63 trials that studied 14,486 people with CHD, predominantly heart attack survivors and those who had undergone heart bypass surgery or angioplasty (a procedure which widens narrowed or obstructed arteries or veins). The findings of this update are consistent with the previous (2011) version of this Cochrane review and show important benefits of exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation that include a reduction in the risk of death due to a cardiovascular cause and hospital admission and improvements in health-related quality of life, compared with not undertaking exercise. There was a considerable variation across studies in the reporting of health-related quality of life outcome. A small body of economic evidence was identified indicating exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation to be cost-effective. Further evidence is needed to understand the effect of exercise training in people with CHD who are higher risk and in those with established angina (chest pain).

Quality of evidence
Although the reporting of methods has improved in recent trials, lack of reporting made it difficult to assess the overall methodological quality and risk of possible bias of the evidence.

Authors' conclusions: 

This updated Cochrane review supports the conclusions of the previous version of this review that, compared with no exercise control, exercise-based CR reduces the risk of cardiovascular mortality but not total mortality. We saw a significant reduction in the risk of hospitalisation with CR but not in the risk of MI or revascularisation. We identified further evidence supporting improved HRQL with exercise-based CR. More recent trials were more likely to be well reported and include older and female patients. However, the population studied in this review still consists predominantly of lower risk individuals following MI or revascularisation. Further well conducted RCTs are needed to assess the impact of exercise-based CR in higher risk CHD groups and also those presenting with stable angina. These trials should include validated HRQL outcome measures, explicitly report clinical event outcomes including mortality and hospital admissions, and assess costs and cost-effectiveness.

Read the full abstract...

Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the single most common cause of death globally. However, with falling CHD mortality rates, an increasing number of people live with CHD and may need support to manage their symptoms and prognosis. Exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation (CR) aims to improve the health and outcomes of people with CHD. This is an update of a Cochrane systematic review previously published in 2011.


To assess the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of exercise-based CR (exercise training alone or in combination with psychosocial or educational interventions) compared with usual care on mortality, morbidity and HRQL in patients with CHD.

To explore the potential study level predictors of the effectiveness of exercise-based CR in patients with CHD.

Search strategy: 

We updated searches from the previous Cochrane review, by searching Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library, Issue 6, 2014) from December 2009 to July 2014. We also searched MEDLINE (Ovid), EMBASE (Ovid), CINAHL (EBSCO) and Science Citation Index Expanded (December 2009 to July 2014).

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of exercise-based interventions with at least six months’ follow-up, compared with a no exercise control. The study population comprised men and women of all ages who have had a myocardial infarction (MI), coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) or percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), or who have angina pectoris, or coronary artery disease. We included RCTs that reported at least one of the following outcomes: mortality, MI, revascularisations, hospitalisations, health-related quality of life (HRQL), or costs.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently screened all identified references for inclusion based on the above inclusion and exclusion criteria. One author extracted data from the included trials and assessed their risk of bias; a second review author checked data. We stratified meta-analysis by the duration of follow up of trials, i.e. short-term: 6 to 12 months, medium-term: 13 to 36 months, and long-term: > 3 years.

Main results: 

This review included 63 trials which randomised 14,486 people with CHD. This latest update identified 16 new trials (3872 participants). The population included predominantly post-MI and post-revascularisation patients and the mean age of patients within the trials ranged from 47.5 to 71.0 years. Women accounted for fewer than 15% of the patients recruited. Overall trial reporting was poor, although there was evidence of an improvement in quality of reporting in more recent trials.

As we found no significant difference in the impact of exercise-based CR on clinical outcomes across follow-up, we focused on reporting findings pooled across all trials at their longest follow-up (median 12 months). Exercise-based CR reduced cardiovascular mortality compared with no exercise control (27 trials; risk ratio (RR) 0.74, 95% CI 0.64 to 0.86). There was no reduction in total mortality with CR (47 trials, RR 0.96, 95% CI 0.88 to 1.04). The overall risk of hospital admissions was reduced with CR (15 trials; RR 0.82, 95% CI 0.70 to 0.96) but there was no significant impact on the risk of MI (36 trials; RR 0.90, 95% CI 0.79 to 1.04), CABG (29 trials; RR 0.96, 95% CI 0.80 to 1.16) or PCI (18 trials; RR 0.85, 95% CI 0.70 to 1.04).

There was little evidence of statistical heterogeneity across trials for all event outcomes, and there was evidence of small study bias for MI and hospitalisation, but no other outcome. Predictors of clinical outcomes were examined across the longest follow-up of studies using univariate meta-regression. Results show that benefits in outcomes were independent of participants' CHD case mix (proportion of patients with MI), type of CR (exercise only vs comprehensive rehabilitation) dose of exercise, length of follow-up, trial publication date, setting (centre vs home-based), study location (continent), sample size or risk of bias.

Given the heterogeneity in outcome measures and reporting methods, meta-analysis was not undertaken for HRQL. In five out of 20 trials reporting HRQL using validated measures, there was evidence of significant improvement in most or all of the sub-scales with exercise-based CR compared to control at follow-up. Four trial-based economic evaluation studies indicated exercise-based CR to be a potentially cost-effective use of resources in terms of gain in quality-adjusted life years.

The quality of the evidence for outcomes reported in the review was rated using the GRADE method. The quality of the evidence varied widely by outcome and ranged from low to moderate.