Written by: American Heart Association
For people who have had a heart attack, starting or returning to an exercise routine can seem scary or overwhelming.
“Everyone is always a little bit scared after a heart attack,” said John Samsa, DO, an interventional cardiologist working in Lake Health Physicians Group Northeast Ohio Heart Associates. “They ask ‘How much can I do? Where should I restrict activity?’ That’s where cardiac rehab comes in.”
Gone are the days when heart patients were advised to avoid activity. Today, experts say exercise is as much a part of the standard of care as aspirin, statins or beta blockers.
Exercise plays an important role in cardiovascular health. It strengthens the heart, preserves its flexibility and enables blood vessels to relax. It helps improve cholesterol and blood pressure and reduces strain on the heart during activity.
“You have to put the body and heart on a road to recovery and starting an exercise program is a good way to do that,” said Samsa.
Cardiac rehab isn’t just about getting exercise. A team of cardiologists, cardiac nurses, physical therapists, exercise physiologists, mental health counselors and nutritionists work together to support each patient’s needs, providing education and coaching over a supervised 12-18 week period. In addition to easing back into exercise safely, patients learn about controlling risk factors, improving diet and managing stress.
“It puts the patient’s mind at ease, and they feel much more confident about starting to exercise,” Samsa said. “It allows them to build their confidence and build their stamina.”
Several studies highlight the benefits of exercise and cardiac rehab.
Heart attack survivors who identified as “constantly active” had a 71% lower risk of death than the “inactive” participants, according to a Swedish study. And heart attack survivors who receive cardiac rehab were 53% less likely to die from any cause and 57% less likely to die from heart-related causes than survivors who did not get cardiac rehab, according to a review of research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Unfortunately, only about a third of heart attack survivors report receiving cardiac rehab, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Samsa said, whether it was part of your regular routine or you were a couch potato before your heart event, cardiac rehab is an important tool for making exercise a habit.
“I can give a patient reassurance to resume, but seeing other patients doing the same thing and going through the same issues at cardiac rehab gives patients the confidence to get over any fears,” he said.
Patients start out slow and build up gradually over time. They should consult their doctor about when and how to build physical exertion, Samsa said, adding that working up to regular physical activity is key for recovery and protecting against future heart events.
“You’re not going to be able to do what you could do before right away,” he said. “When you are hospitalized, you decondition very quickly, but you recondition very slowly.”
When starting or resuming physical activity, Samsa advises patients to take it slow.
“Doing anything is better than doing nothing,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be running a 5K or a marathon, it can be simple walking, swimming or riding a bike. It’s about getting exercise on a regular basis. Even if you’re older and can’t walk, we’ll be able to find something that will improve your health.”