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Cardiac Rehabilitation: What You Should Know

Cardiac rehabilitation is a medically supervised program that helps improve the health and well-being of people who have heart problems. It includes exercise, education on heart healthy living, and counseling to reduce stress and to help the patient return to an active life. Patients receive personalized comprehensive care from a team of experienced professionals who work together to help the patient on the road to recovery and better health.
 
Treadmill workout with therapistWho Needs Cardiac Rehabilitation?

Men and women of all ages who have experienced heart problems can benefit from cardiac rehab, including those who have had:

  • a heart attack (myocardial infarction)
  • angioplasty or coronary artery bypass surgery for coronary artery disease
  • heart valve repair or replacement
  • stable angina
  • heart failure

What are the Goals of Cardiac Rehabilitation?

The goal of cardiac rehabilitation is to help in the recovery process by minimizing the risk factors that led to coronary artery disease. These risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, overweight or obesity, diabetes, smoking, lack of physical activity, depression and other emotional health concerns. Cardiac rehab is a tool to help you adopt a healthier lifestyle and improve your quality of life.

What are the Benefits and Risks?

There are many benefits to cardiac rehab. Patients may:

  • reduce the chance of future heart problems and the chance of dying from a heart attack;
  • decrease pain and the need for medication to treat heart or chest pain;
  • lessen the chance of returning to the hospital for a heart problem;
  • improve overall health by decreasing risk factors for heart problems; and 
  • improve quality of life, making it easier to perform the activities of daily living (ADLs), participate in social activities and remain active.

The lifestyle changes that you make during cardiac rehab also have a few risks. At first, physical activity is safer in the rehab setting than at home. The rehab team members are well-trained and have experience teaching people with heart problems how to exercise. You will be carefully monitored as your exercise program grows in intensity.

Your rehab team will tell you about signs and symptoms of possible problems to watch for once you're given the go ahead to exercise at home. If you notice these signs and symptoms, you should stop the activity and contact your doctor.

What to Expect During Your Rehabilitation

After your initial evaluation, you will probably work with a cardiac rehabilitation team for six to 12 months. The length of time depends on your situation. Gradually, the lifestyle changes you make during rehab will become routine:

1. Increased daily physical activity

Monitored exercise is one of the most important parts of cardiac rehabilitation. Moving more will help improve muscle strength, flexibility and endurance, and it may help you lose weight if needed. Physical activity also helps you cope better with stress.

Your cardiac team will assess your physical activity level to learn how active you are and to help you find ways to safely add physical activity to your daily routine. You can expect that a team member will check your blood pressure several times during exercise training. You may also need an electrocardiogram (EKG) to check your heart during exercise to see how fast your heart is beating and whether the rhythm is steady or irregular.

You’ll begin exercising under close supervision and gradually your exercise regimen will transition so that you’ll do it on your own. You’ll get a written plan that lists each exercise and explains how often and for how long you should do it.

Typically, your rehab team will ask you to do aerobic exercise three to five days per week for 30 to 60 minutes. Examples of aerobic exercise are walking, cycling, rowing or stair climbing. Your rehab team will ask you to do resistance training two or three days per week. This may include lifting weights, using a wall pulley, or using elastic bands to stretch and condition your muscles.

It’s important to know that exercise training may not be safe for all patients. For example, people who have very high blood pressure or severe heart disease may not be able to exercise. Always check with your doctor before starting any exercise routine.

2. Heart healthy eating plan, smoking cessation

The dietitian on your cardiac rehab team will help you develop a personal eating plan that will help you control your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar. You’ll learn how to plan meals that meet your calorie needs and are low in saturated and trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium.

If you are a smoker, quitting smoking will help lower your blood pressure and help keep your cholesterol levels healthy, and make it easier for you to participate in physical activities. Your doctor may prescribe medication to help you quit smoking. You may be asked to participate in a smoking cessation program.

3. Improved emotional health

Ongoing research suggests a relationship between emotional health and the risk of heart disease. Depression, anxiety and anger increase the risk, and in a cyclical way, those very emotions often increase when a person experiences a heart attack, heart surgery or other effects of heart disease. Interrupting that cycle is important.   

Techniques for reducing stress, coping with problems and building a supportive social network help improve physical and mental health. Your rehab program may offer individual or small group counseling to help you. It is important to seek help because without help from a professional, these problems may not go away.

For More Information

The American Heart Association’s website offers resources and information about cardiac rehabilitation.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have questions about cardiac rehabilitation, contact your physician or other healthcare provider.

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