Pedalling Towards a Better Quality of Life

Dialysis sessions can be frequent and long, but using a stationary bike during treatment can help pass the time while improving health outcomes.


In end-stage kidney disease, patients can require dialysis three times a week. These sessions last four hours each, and simply sitting in a chair for the duration can quickly cause muscle loss and restlessness. But researchers at Alberta Health Services and the University of Calgary have shown that pedalling on a modified stationary bicycle during dialysis improves health outcomes.

Firstly, dialysis works better during exercise. The modified stationary bicycles allow patients to access foot pedals while being seated in a reclining chair during their treatment.

Dialysis takes blood and filters out toxins that build up over time, taking over this critical function of the failing kidneys, before returning the clean blood to the patient. Even low-intensity exercise during dialysis sends more blood to the muscles, helping remove built-up toxins more effectively.

Secondly, encouraging patients to exercise during their dialysis sessions helps them pass the time while building their physical fitness. Dialysis patients can suffer from chronic fatigue, and the resulting lack of stamina can make it hard to carry out normal activities, including walking. That means they can quickly lose their independence.

Starting slowly with a few minutes on the stationary bikes, patients can build up their cycling time over years of treatment. Compared to patients who didn’t participate, patients who cycled showed improved aerobic capacity, leg muscle strength, and quality of life.

“Improving leg strength may not sound that important, but it promotes mobility, helps maintain independence, and substantially decreases the risk of falls, which can be devastating for this patient population,” said principal investigator Dr. Jennifer MacRae in a statement.

Many kidney failure patients also have comorbidities like diabetes and cardiac disease. Their medical conditions put them at high risk of hospitalization. However, after six months of participation in an intradialytic cycling program, patients saw lower hospitalization rates and shorter hospital stays.

Being able to exercise during treatment converts these long appointments into time that empowers patients to improve their overall health. It’s a simple intervention that lowers healthcare costs without eating into a patient’s personal time, making it easy to incorporate into a routine. And while many hospitals are slow to adopt official programs, it’s inexpensive for patients to acquire a portable foot pedal system for personal use.

Treatment for chronic diseases can make patients feel like they’re going nowhere. Covering symbolic distances in a cycling routine actually helps patients get places on their own two feet in their everyday lives. That’s a great goal for time otherwise spent sitting and waiting.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.