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The Next Step in Recovery After a Heart Attack: Cardiac Rehab

Exercising may not be the first thing you think about if you’ve had a heart attack, heart failure, stent replacement or angioplasty or other heart issues. You may break into a sweat just thinking about intentionally raising your heart rate as you recover emotionally and physically. Will your heart withstand the stress of exercise? What can you do to know how much to exercise without damaging your heart?

These concerns are completely natural, but research shows that a cardiac rehab program can help you recover better and adjust to a healthier “new normal.” Numerous studies in both men and women have demonstrated that regular exercise and physical fitness are both associated with a reduced risk of future cardiac events and death. 

What is Cardiac Rehab?

Years ago, when a person had a heart attack, they were kept in bed for weeks to recover. Today, doctors know that in most cases, a supervised return to physical activity—as soon as safely possible—yields a better outcome. Remember that the heart is a muscle, and that exercise strengthens it. 

Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program designed for people who have had heart failure, angioplasty or stent placement, open heart bypass surgery, angina, heart or lung transplant, heart attack or heart valve replacement. It often starts informally, when you’re encouraged to get out of the hospital bed and walk around your room for the first time.

But technically, cardiac rehab is a structured program developed by professionals—cardiologists, nutrition and exercise specialists, mental health specialists, nurse educators and physical therapists who become your team. For a specified number of weeks (12 or so), you’ll be guided through exercises, all while being closely monitored to ensure you’re safe. You’ll also learn how to develop healthier habits, whether it’s to improve your diet, manage stress or become more active. Cardiac rehab includes not only an exercise component, but also comprehensive risk factor management, including help with medications, diet, smoking cessation and psychosocial counseling.

Patients say that in addition to learning healthy living skills, cardiac rehab gives them confidence as they discover what their bodies are capable of, and return to activity in a safe and supportive environment.

Statistics show that participating in cardiac rehab decreases the chances of another cardiac event by 30%-40%. Cardiac rehab can benefit anyone at any age, if your doctor thinks you’re healthy enough to start. 

Get the Most Out of Cardiac Rehab By:

  • Asking your doctor if you’re a good candidate for it and if so, sign up. Many programs are covered by Medicare and major health insurance providers.
  • Starting the program as soon as the doctor advises.
  • Asking your rehab team questions and telling them about any symptoms or concerns.
  • Taking your medicines as prescribed.
  • Implementing healthy lifestyle changes during the program and maintaining them afterward. 

If a cardiac rehab program isn’t available in your area, consider taking part in the American Heart Association’s program, The Active Partnership, which is a workbook and DVD with lifestyle education information that can be used at home.

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