February 21, 2024

Happy hearts: Enhancing physical activity for kids with heart disease

February is Heart Month

February is Heart Month and focuses on cardiovascular health and preventing heart disease. It emphasizes the importance of heart health at every stage of life, including childhood. 

At the forefront of advanced heart care is the Stollery Children’s Hospital, known for its comprehensive support for pediatric cardiac patients and their families. They provide world-class pediatric cardiac surgical care and the opportunity to work towards bettering the health of Canadian children through clinical care, research and education.

Pediatric cardiologist Michael Khoury plays a critical role in early intervention and preventative measures through his research to improve the heart health of young patients. 

What would you like people to know about heart health for children?

The risk factors for severe cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks and strokes, begin in childhood. One of these key risk factors is physical inactivity. Children born with or developing heart disease early in life have lower levels of physical activity than the general population.

Much of my research program focuses on improving the fitness and physical activity levels of children with heart disease or those who develop it early in life, including children who have needed heart transplants.

I also focus on the early detection and treatment of cholesterol disorders in Canadian children, specifically a genetic disorder called familial hypercholesterolemia, which is under-detected but affects about one in 250 people.

Can you summarize your research?

Children with heart disease often have reduced fitness levels and physical activity due to both biological limitations and modifiable factors like perceived barriers from themselves and those around them. Our goal is to improve fitness levels and inspire confidence in physical activity participation.

Our research aims not only to improve the fitness levels of children with heart disease but also to enable them and inspire confidence toward a lifetime of participation and enjoyment in physical activities and sports.

What is the MedBIKE program, and how does it aim to improve the quality of life for young patients?

The MedBIKE is a home-based exercise platform linked to video games developed at the University of Alberta. Children can bike from home while supervised by medical professionals, participating in a 12-week high-intensity interval training program.

It aims to improve fitness, physical activity levels, and confidence in exercise. We supervise their heart tracing and heart rate and follow up with assessments at six and 12 months to evaluate sustained changes.

How could the results of your research impact children and the healthcare system?

Exercise promotion for children with heart disease is crucial, and cardiac rehabilitation programs for pediatric populations are needed. Programs like MedBIKE offer safe, fun, and accessible exercise, broadening reach and serving geographically diverse patient populations. 

Results from our research inform healthcare policies and practices to prioritize exercise strategies for children with heart disease, potentially leading to improved health outcomes and reduced healthcare burdens in the long term.

What does the support of WCHRI through the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation mean to you and your research?

Support from WCHRI and the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation is instrumental in enabling important research work and larger initiatives. It allows for addressing challenging questions and contributes to the excellence of institutions like the Stollery Children’s Hospital and the University of Alberta. 

The generous contributions from donors make it possible to advance scientific knowledge, improve clinical practices, and ultimately enhance the health and well-being of children with heart disease.

Michael Khoury is an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics. His research is funded by the Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation through the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute.