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Learning how to exercise safely after a heart event or surgery is an essential part of recovery, and an important way to increase overall well-being. If you are uneasy about how to incorporate physical activity into your life, specialists with Texas Health’s cardiac rehabilitation programs know just how to make you feel confident on your fitness journey.
“We treat everyone who comes here as an individual, not a statistic,” says Jennifer Scott, the cardiac rehab manager at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Hurst-Euless-Bedford. “We will help get you out of the mindset that you are a patient, and instead teach you that you are a person managing your disease.” Scott adds that this attitude empowers many participants to include fitness in their lives and stay active.
Studies support the short- and long-term value of physical activity following a cardiac event. A 2018 Swedish study, for example, found that heart attack survivors who said they were “constantly active” had a 71% lower risk of death than “inactive” participants. A 2017 review of research found that heart attack survivors who received cardiac rehab were 57% less likely to die from heart-related causes and 53% less likely to die from any cause than those who did not receive cardiac rehab.
A Personalized Approach
Knowing when to return to exercise varies for each person, Scott says. Some feel comfortable resuming a fitness routine on their own shortly after a doctor clears them. For others, they may prefer the care that cardiac rehab provides. This includes access to a team of doctors on the medical staff, nurses, exercise physiologists, dietitian and other experts who can help create a multidisciplinary plan of action for each person.
“Cardiac rehab isn’t a cookie-cutter program,” Scott says. “What we do here is individualized and we personalize it for everyone who walks through the door.
Safety has always been essential when anyone returns to exercise after a cardiac event. Precautions should be taken before each exercise session. For example, it’s important to take baseline data such as blood pressure and heart rate. In cardiac rehab, you are asked specific questions about changes in your health, new medications, plus information about your water and food intake. All of these factors can affect exercise performance.”
Scott also notes that it’s not just about the heart event. It’s about everything that surrounds the event. “We need to know how you are eating, sleeping and managing life. We want to know how you view your quality of life and how can we help improve that.”
Asking about mental health is important as well. One reason is because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that disorders such as depression and anxiety may develop and persist long after a cardiac event. Scott says she has seen firsthand how an active lifestyle can help alleviate some of these problems.
A typical session in cardiac rehab is similar to any heart-healthy fitness routine: warmup, aerobic exercise, strength training and cool down with stretching. The difference is each segment can be adjusted to fit individual fitness levels and adapted to help you reach your goals safely.
After the warmup, if you feel well, then the next step is to aim for at least 30 minutes of cardio. In a rehab setting, this is usually performed on a treadmill, stationary bike or other machine equipped with a display screen that shows speed, intensity and duration. Learning how to read this data, plus monitoring target heart rate, are key to gauging how hard the body is working. Scott says learning to be aware of these factors will help you perform cardio exercises safely on your own outside of rehab.
Another essential part of a fitness program is resistance training. It may include strength work using resistance bands, weights or body-resistance exercises like pushups and squats.
The session ends with a cool down that incorporates stretching, flexibility and balance. Scott and her team use this time to teach stress management and breathing techniques.
During the workout, Scott says, it’s important to watch for signs of overexertion, which can include difficulty speaking, dehydration, lightheadedness and pain. When any of those occur, it’s best to stop and rest, and after the symptoms pass, start exercising again at a lower level.
Returning to exercise requires patience because healing after a cardiac event or surgery is a process.
Scott says one of the best parts of cardiac rehab is seeing the change in people’s lives. “You can see it in their faces when they make that turn. You can see that they start to feel empowered and they start to have hope.”
She also stresses that cardiac rehab is for everybody — from seasoned athletes who may have extensive exercise experience to those who rarely exercise.
“What we teach isn’t just for when you’re in cardiac rehab,” Scott adds “It’s for life. The goal is to show you this is how you can take care of your heart for the rest of your life.”
Learn more about cardiac rehab to help you safely return to exercise after a heart event.
Doctors on the medical staffs practice independently and are not employees or agents of Texas Health hospitals or Texas Health Resources.
This article was developed by the American Heart Association for Texas Health.