Q&A: Help Advance the 2016 ACSM World Heart Games — Patients Reclaiming the Joy of Sport!

By F. Stuart Sanders, M.D., FACSM

Viewpoints presented in SMB commentaries reflect opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

F. Stuart Sanders, M.D., FACSM, is an internal and sports medicine physician. He has directed the Habersham Cardiac Rehabilitation and Cardiovascular Fitness Programs in Demorest, Georgia, since 1986. He also is an adjunct professor of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine and has served on medical teams for several different Olympic Games. He currently serves as a Team USA Figure Skating Physician.

The World Heart Games provide an Olympic-style competition for patients with a cardiovascular disease (CVD) diagnosis or those with clinical risk factors for development of CVD. Dr. Sanders, in collaboration with health care colleagues in cardiac rehabilitation, initiated the games nearly 25 years ago in Georgia. ACSM assumed leadership and sponsored the World Heart Games in 2010 and again in 2013. The games are offered in different venues across the U.S. and currently scheduled on a three-year cycle. Dr. Sanders, with task force colleagues, will conduct the 2016 ACSM World Heart Games this May 20-21 at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Parks and Recreation/Marion Diehl Park Charlotte in North Carolina.

SMB: What are the ACSM World Heart Games (WHG) and how do participants benefit?
Sanders: This event includes two days of Olympic-style competition for patients with risk factors for CVD and/or those with a previous CVD diagnosis and advisory encouragement from their personal physician to participate. The competition is an excellent opportunity for these individuals to engage in a range of sporting events consistent with their health status, fitness and skills. They come to the games highly motivated to compete and enjoy the opportunity to meet participants from other areas of the U.S. and, in some past years, from other countries as well. In previous WHG, these “cardiac athletes” have typically prepared for weeks and months through physical training and skill development. There is an important social dimension to this experience, too, since they often organize within their localities for training and then compete for team awards. Overall, these circumstances help patients to: 1) re-establish confidence in the capacity to perform a variety of healthful physical activities; 2) begin establishing a pattern of regular physical activity; and 3) build camaraderie with other athletes through the joy of competition.

First and foremost, the events are engineered to provide challenges that are calibrated to the capabilities of clinically stable patients -- patients with their physicians having cleared them for controlled exercise in environments away from structured and clinically supervised cardiac rehabilitation settings. Participants can register for several different endurance events, e.g., swimming, walking, jogging and stationary cycling or rowing. In the endurance events, the goal is for each competitor to accurately predict their finish time within submaximal performance limits that are familiar to them. Additional events include bocce ball, golf putting, disc golf, basketball shooting, soccer goal kicking, tennis, biking, volleyball and bowling, among others. The WHG environment is safe and well supported, with crash carts, availability of emergency medical personnel in key areas and qualified volunteers who supervise events throughout the venue.

SMB: What message should the ACSM WHG convey to the public?
Sanders: Beyond the benefits of the WHG’s experience for individual athletes, perhaps the most important aim is to remind the general public that CVD continues to be one of the leading causes of death worldwide (see latest statistics from the American Heart Association). A second and equally important message is to promote understanding that every patient can favorably reduce their CVD risk by making physical activity, graded to their physical capabilities, a regular part of their daily lives. The third aspect of this health messaging is to illustrate that a more physically active life is attainable for all — even those with various CVD diagnoses! Many patients tend to suffer depression in the early stages after a cardiac diagnosis or morbid event. In this regard, the games can be a reference point for demonstrating to physicians, patients, families and communities that, through appropriate rehabilitation and progressive return to regular physical activity and lifestyle changes, a cardiac condition need not interfere with an active and socially independent life.

SMB: How can ACSM members involved in cardiac rehabilitation inform qualified candidates about participating in the 2016 WHG?
Sanders: Detailed information is available at ACSM’s World Heart Games webpage, where all materials that participants need are available. Available resources include a downloadable brochure, registration form and participant release/waiver. Opportunities for sponsorship also are presented at this website, and we encourage members to invite corporate colleagues to support this worthwhile event. The deadline for receipt of registration is April 29, 2016. To participate, a patient must complete a waiver, submit relevant medical information and ask their doctor to complete an advisory form. The doctor must provide a confirmation that the patient is clinically stable and would not be exposed to undue risk by participating. In the past, the games have attracted more than 100 participants from the U.S. For the 2016 games, international teams are expected to participate as well.

These games are a tangible example of an outreach activity that is fundamental to ACSM’s advocacy of healthful and medically appropriate physical activity for all. So closely allied are the goals of the WHG and ACSM’s strategic health initiative, Exercise is Medicine®, the two ACSM initiatives have recently established a formal partnership that will serve as a catalyst to advance the objectives of both programs. We’re asking members of ACSM to encourage appropriate patients, clients and friends to join the infectious enthusiasm, challenges and fun to be had at the ACSM World Heart Games 2016.

Editorial Note: For further details or to learn how you can help with efforts to encourage patient participation in your community, please contact Ms. Ileah Baier, ACSM World Heart Games Coordinator.