Healthy old manA new exercise programme to reduce the risk of heart disease in kidney transplant patients is being developed by researchers at Loughborough University, the University of Leicester and Leicester’s hospitals.

More than 3,000 kidney transplants were carried out in the UK during 2015/16, while there were more than 5,000 people on the waiting list for a kidney. While this can hugely transform their lives, these patients also face an increased risk of heart disease and general damage to the heart, which in turn can lead to kidney damage. 

Exercise is an important part of maintaining a healthy heart and research by the Loughborough and Leicester team suggests that while kidney transplant patients want to be active, they are unsure of how much exercise to do, what type to do and worry about ‘overdoing it’ or damaging their new kidney. This new research project, funded by a £147,800 grant from charity Heart Research UK, will compare the impact of different interval training programmes in kidney patients with the long-term aim of developing safe and effective exercise programmes and guidelines to help reduce their risk of heart disease.

The study is part of the work being carried out by the Leicester-Loughborough Diet, Lifestyle and Physical Activity Biomedical Research Unit, which is harnessing the power of experimental science to explore and develop ways to help prevent and treat chronic disease.

As part of this study, 36 patients will be organised into three groups. Each group will undertake different exercise training programmes that involve exercising three times a week for eight weeks, at the state-of-the-art gym facilities at Loughborough University and Leicester General Hospital. Two groups will follow an exercise programme that involves alternating short bursts of high and lower intensity exercise. The third will complete a steady, brisk cycle for 45 minutes at each session.

The researchers will look at the attractiveness of each programme (how likely patients were to complete and stick to their assigned programme) and the impact it has had on individual heart risk (by looking at any changes in the markers for cardiovascular disease risk, arterial stiffness, blood pressure and lipid profiles). 

Dr Nicolette Bishop, who is leading the research team, said: “A donated kidney is an incredibly precious gift. We know that transplant patients want to be active – and it’s important to exercise due to their increased risk of heart disease – but they don’t know where to start due to a lack of guidance.

“This research project is the first step in getting that guidance. Our study will help us to choose the most suitable exercise programme for these patients, including finding out which type they prefer doing and how effective it is in lowering their heart disease risk.”

Co-investigator Dr Alice Smith, from the University of Leicester and who leads the Leicester Kidney Exercise Team, frequently gets emails and phone calls from kidney transplant recipients from all over the UK asking her about exercise. She said: “These people are keen to be active as they feel so much better after receiving a new kidney, but we just don’t know enough about exercise with a kidney transplant to be able to advise them. We are delighted that we can undertake this important new study to begin to provide patients and doctors with the answers to their questions.”

John Savage, 35, an actor who played Leeds United player Gordon McQueen in the film The Damned United, understands the importance of exercise for kidney patients. He was born with posterior urethral valve, where there is a blockage that affects the workings of the kidney. Although he didn’t suffer immediate problems there was a steady decline, which led to kidney failure when he was 31. 

“I watched myself just slide downwards,” said Savage. “It was a really frustrating time because the doctors who were looking after me said there was nothing they could do and said I would need dialysis and a transplant.”

Savage said he watched himself decline to the point where he became too ill to continue his acting career, but added that he was lucky to get the call to say they’d found a kidney match from a donated organ and he was prepared for the operation.

After the transplant he immediately felt better and had a new lease of life, Savage said. While he is unable to return to the martial arts he did before he became ill, he enjoys running, volleyball and swimming. As a patient he welcomes the development of new exercise guidance created especially for kidney patients. He believes that the guidance will make consultants more confident in telling their patients how active they can be, which will lead to an increase in confidence and better quality of life for kidney patients.    

Barbara Harpham, national director of Heart Research UK, said: “Heart Research UK has already pioneered exercise prescription for youngsters with heart problems and if this research can find the right level of exercise for this specific condition, we hope that even more patients will be able to live healthier, happier, longer lives.”