Family members of heart disease patients get more physically active and eat more fruits and vegetables after counselling sessions, a Canadian trial suggests.

In the year-long study researchers randomly assigned 211 family members of patients hospitalized for coronary artery disease to a counselling and goal setting program or to simply receiving reading material.

Those assigned to the program were counselled by health educators on how to improve cholesterol levels, physical activity, fruit and vegetable consumption.

Vegetable shopping

Relatives in the heart-health counselling group initially ate 1.2 servings more per day of fruits and vegetables compared with those in the placebo group. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

The program succeeded in getting participants moving and eating more produce compared with family members in the control group who just received printed materials about quitting smoking, healthy eating, weight management and physical activity.

"Hospitalization of a spouse, sibling or parent is an opportunity to improve cardiovascular health among other family members," Dr. Robert Reid of the Ottawa Heart Institute and his co-authors concluded in Monday's issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

"High participant engagement and a reasonable cost per participant ($240) suggest that the intervention is feasible."

Compared with family members in the control group, those who received counselling reported nearly 66 more minutes of physical activity a week at three months, which fell to 24 extra minutes by the 12-month mark.

Those in the heart-health group also consumed 1.2 servings more per day of fruits and veggies at three months, which fell to 0.8 servings at a year. Their body mass index and waist circumference were also reduced.

Aside from the second counselling session which was done face-to-face, the sessions were by telephone.

The researchers suspect that components of the program — goal-setting, self-monitoring, frequent contact with health educators, feedback and other elements — motivated the behavioural changes more than the generic handouts that many doctors use.

Participants needed to have at least one risk factor like smoking, physical inactivity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure or abdominal obesity to be eligible. People with diabetes or cardiovascular disease were excluded from the study.

Participants were mainly well-educated, white, and lived in urban areas.

The other researchers were from Columbia University Medical Center in New York, the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit, and the medicine department at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

The study was funded by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario.