Heart failure patients with only mild symptoms and slight limitations during ordinary activity may improve functional capacity by practicing Pilates exercises. Adding to the scientific research concerning the effectiveness of Pilates, a small preliminary study published in Cardiovascular Therapeutics (2011; doi: 10.1111/j.1755-5922.2011.00285.x) has shown that heart failure patients who practiced 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, followed by 20 minutes of Pilates mat exercises, experienced greater gains in peak VO2 than their peers who participated only in a conventional cardiac rehabilitation program.

Researchers from the University of São Paulo, in Brazil, wanted to investigate the effects of Pilates on exercise capacity variables in heart failure patients. Subjects were 16 outpatients with heart failure who were experiencing no symptoms or only mild symptoms and slight limitations during ordinary activity, such as walking short distances or climbing stairs. All participants completed an exercise capacity test at baseline.

Investigators assigned subjects randomly to either a standard cardiac rehabilitation program, consisting of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise followed by 20 minutes of calisthenics, or to the same aerobic program followed by 20 minutes of Pilates. Two days after the last exercise session, all participants performed a follow-up exercise capacity test.

Review of the data showed that while exercise capacity improved in all subjects, ventilation and max VO2 improved significantly in Pilates group participants. The researchers suggested that the difference might have resulted from Pilates breathing exercises. No adverse effects developed from Pilates practice. Study limitations included, among other factors, the small sample size, lack of a control group, and the fact that the study was limited to heart failure patients with no symptoms or only mild symptoms. More research was recommended.