Exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation may benefit adults with atrial fibrillation or those who had been treated for atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is caused by multiple micro re-entry circuits within the atrial tissue, which result in chaotic rapid activity in the atria.
To assess the benefits and harms of exercise-based rehabilitation programmes, alone or with another intervention, compared with no-exercise training controls in adults who currently have AF, or have been treated for AF.
We searched the following electronic databases; CENTRAL and the Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effectiveness (DARE) in the Cochrane Library, MEDLINE Ovid, Embase Ovid, PsycINFO Ovid, Web of Science Core Collection Thomson Reuters, CINAHL EBSCO, LILACS Bireme, and three clinical trial registers on 14 July 2016. We also checked the bibliographies of relevant systematic reviews identified by the searches. We imposed no language restrictions.
We included randomised controlled trials (RCT) that investigated exercise-based interventions compared with any type of no-exercise control. We included trials that included adults aged 18 years or older with atrial fibrillation, or post-treatment for atrial fibrillation.
Data collection and analysis
Two authors independently extracted data. We assessed the risk of bias using the domains outlined in the Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions. We assessed clinical and statistical heterogeneity by visual inspection of the forest plots, and by using standard Chi² and I² statistics. We performed meta-analyses using fixed-effect and random-effects models; we used standardised mean differences where different scales were used for the same outcome. We assessed the risk of random errors with trial sequential analysis (TSA) and used the GRADE methodology to rate the quality of evidence, reporting it in the 'Summary of findings' table.
We included six RCTs with a total of 421 patients with various types of atrial fibrillation. All trials were conducted between 2006 and 2016, and had short follow-up (eight weeks to six months). Risks of bias ranged from high risk to low risk.The exercise-based programmes in four trials consisted of both aerobic exercise and resistance training, in one trial consisted of Qi-gong (slow and graceful movements), and in another trial, consisted of inspiratory muscle training.
For mortality, very low-quality evidence from six trials suggested no clear difference in deaths between the exercise and no-exercise groups (relative risk (RR) 1.00, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.06 to 15.78; participants = 421; I² = 0%; deaths = 2). Very low-quality evidence from five trials suggested no clear difference between groups for serious adverse events (RR 1.01, 95% CI 0.98 to 1.05; participants = 381; I² = 0%; events = 8). Low-quality evidence from two trials suggested no clear difference in health-related quality of life for the Short Form-36 (SF-36) physical component summary measure (mean difference (MD) 1.96, 95% CI -2.50 to 6.42; participants = 224; I² = 69%), or the SF-36 mental component summary measure (MD 1.99, 95% CI -0.48 to 4.46; participants = 224; I² = 0%). Exercise capacity was assessed by cumulated work, or maximal power (Watt), obtained by cycle ergometer, or by six minute walking test, or ergospirometry testing measuring VO2 peak. We found moderate-quality evidence from two studies that exercise-based rehabilitation increased exercise capacity, measured by VO2 peak, more than no exercise (MD 3.76, 95% CI 1.37 to 6.15; participants = 208; I² = 0%); and very low-quality evidence from four studies that exercise-based rehabilitation increased exercise capacity more than no exercise, measured by the six-minute walking test (MD 75.76, 95% CI 14.00 to 137.53; participants = 272; I² = 85%). When we combined the different assessment tools for exercise capacity, we found very low-quality evidence from six trials that exercise-based rehabilitation increased exercise capacity more than no exercise (standardised mean difference (SMD) 0.86, 95% CI 0.46 to 1.26; participants = 359; I² = 65%). Overall, the quality of the evidence for the outcomes ranged from moderate to very-low.
Due to few randomised patients and outcomes, we could not evaluate the real impact of exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation on mortality or serious adverse events. The evidence showed no clinically relevant effect on health-related quality of life. Pooled data showed a positive effect on the surrogate outcome of physical exercise capacity, but due to the low number of patients and the moderate to very low-quality of the underpinning evidence, we could not be certain of the magnitude of the effect. Future high-quality randomised trials are needed to assess the benefits and harms of exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation for adults with atrial fibrillation on patient-relevant outcomes.