Liberalized European Sports Cardiology Guidelines Break New Ground

Bruce Jancin

September 17, 2020

New guidelines on sports cardiology from the European Society of Cardiology break fresh ground by green-lighting participation in vigorous competitive sports by selected patients with stable coronary artery disease, heart failure, or mild arrhythmias.

These liberalized guidelines, released at the virtual annual congress of the European Society of Cardiology, thus move well beyond the standard exercise advice to engage in about 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity, typically defined as brisk walking or its equivalent.

The guidelines reflect a conviction that exercise is powerful medicine for patients with cardiovascular disease and also affords a means to help curb the epidemics of diabetes and obesity that drive cardiovascular risk, according to Antonio Pelliccia, MD, who cochaired the 24-member task force of European and American experts that developed the guidelines.

In a session highlighting the new sports cardiology guidelines, Mats Borjesson, MD, head of the Center for Health and Performance at Gothenburg (Sweden) University, summarized the section devoted to patients with stable coronary artery disease: "If you have established CAD and a low risk of adverse events during exercise, you are eligible for high-intensity exercise and competitive sports. But if you have persistent ischemia despite medical treatment, or symptoms, then you're only eligible for leisure-time subthreshold activity."

Dr. Pelliccia put this new recommendation into context.

"We are not talking anymore in this particular disease just about cardiac rehabilitation or leisure-time activity, but we are also opening the border and talking about competitive sports activity in selected patients where you have the evidence for low risk of exercise-induced adverse events. This is a major achievement now for what is the major disease in our adult population," said Dr. Pelliccia, chief of cardiology at the Institute of Sports Medicine and Science at the Italian National Olympic Committee and professor of sports cardiology at La Sapienza University of Rome.

The recommendation for individualized consideration of all types of exercise, even including vigorous competitive sports, in low-risk patients with CAD gets a class IIa, level of evidence (LOE) C recommendation in the new guidelines. That's a big step down from a ringing class Ia endorsement, but since sports cardiology is a relatively young field with little evidence that's based on randomized trials, the guidelines are rife with many other class IIa, LOE C recommendations as well.

"The level of evidence is rather low, so these guidelines are very much the personal perspective of the expert panel," explained Martin Halle, MD, professor and head of the department of prevention, rehabilitation, and sports cardiology at Technical University of Munich.

The high-risk features for exercise-induced cardiac adverse events in patients with longstanding stable CAD, as cited in the guidelines, include a critical coronary stenosis, defined as a more than 70% lesion in a major coronary artery or a greater than 50% stenosis in the left main, and/or a fractional flow reserve score of less than 0.8; a left ventricular ejection fraction of 50% or less with wall-motion abnormalities; inducible myocardial ischemia on maximal exercise testing; nonsustained ventricular tachycardia; polymorphic or very frequent ventricular premature beats at rest and during maximum stress; and a recent acute coronary syndrome (ACS). These features call for an exercise prescription tailored to remain below the patient's angina and ischemia thresholds.

"It's important for cardiologists out there to understand that we definitely need a maximal exercise test. In somebody who is running and has an ACS and then wants to start running again, 200 watts on an ergometer is too low. We have to push them up to the end, and then if everything is okay — left ventricular function is okay, no ischemia, no arrhythmias under exercise testing — then it's fine," Dr. Halle said.

Dr. Pelliccia added that close follow-up is needed, because this is an evolving disease."

Exercise and Heart Failure

Massimo F. Piepoli, MD, PhD, noted that the guidelines give a class IIb, LOE C recommendation for consideration of high-intensity recreational endurance and power sports in patients with heart failure with either midrange or preserved ejection fraction, provided they are stable, asymptomatic, on optimal guideline-directed medical therapy, and without abnormalities on a maximal exercise stress test.

However, such intense physical activity is not recommended in patients with heart failure with reduced ejection fraction, regardless of their symptom status, added Dr. Piepoli of Guglielmo da Saliceto Hospital in Placenza, Italy.

"We're talking here, I think for the first time, about possible competitive sports participation in individuals with heart failure, depending on their clinical condition. We are really opening the barriers to sports participation, even in these patients in whom we never thought of it before," Dr. Pelliccia observed.

Valvular Heart Disease and Exercise

Guidelines panelist Sabiha Gati, MRCP, PhD, said asymptomatic individuals with mild valvular abnormalities can participate in all recreational and competitive sports; that's a class I, LOE C recommendation.

"Moderate regurgitant lesions are better tolerated than stenotic lesions, and those with preserved systolic function, good functional capacity, without any exercise-induced arrhythmias or ischemia or abnormal hemodynamic response are considered to be low risk and can participate in all sports," added Dr. Gati, a cardiologist at Royal Brompton Hospital, London.

The two most common valvular abnormalities encountered in clinical practice are bicuspid aortic valve and mitral valve prolapse. Dr. Gati noted that, while mitral valve prolapse has a benign prognosis in the great majority of affected individuals, the presence of specific features indicative of increased risk for sudden cardiac death precludes participation in strenuous exercise. These include T-wave inversion in the inferior leads on a 12-lead ECG, long QT, bileaflet mitral valve prolapse, basal inferolateral wall fibrosis, severe mitral regurgitation, or a family history of sudden cardiac death.

Bicuspid aortic valve has a prevalence of 1%–2% in the general population. It can be associated with aortic stenosis, aortic regurgitation, and increased risk of ascending aortic aneurysm and dissection. Since it remains unclear whether intensive exercise accelerates aortic dilatation, a cautious approach to sports participation is recommended in patients with an ascending aorta above the normal limit of 40 mm, she said.

The 80-page ESC sports cardiology guidelines, published online simultaneously with their presentation, cover a broad range of additional topics, including exercise recommendations for the general public, for the elderly, as well as for patients with cardiomyopathies, adult congenital heart disease, arrhythmias, and channelopathies. Gaps in evidence are also highlighted.

Eur Heart J. Published online August 29, 2020. Full text

European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Congress 2020.

This article originally appeared on

For more from | Medscape Cardiology, follow us on Twitter and Facebook.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.