Have you ever wondered what it might be like to have your own personal coach and cheerleader—someone to help you live a more active and healthful life, and make it a priority? In many ways, this is what cardiac rehabilitation (cardiac rehab) programs do for people recovering from certain heart-related conditions and procedures.
How? Among other things, cardiac rehab offers one-on-one supervised exercise regimens, practical advice for heart-healthy eating and reducing stress, and support for managing medications, smoking cessation and other heart risk factors.
Studies of this three-month medically supervised program consistently show the advantages. Cardiac rehab helps participants feel better, live a heart-healthier lifestyle and regain strength. It can also help prevent future cardiac events—even death.
Yet many people who could benefit don’t. Why? First, patients may not be referred to a cardiac rehab program. Second, even when they are referred, they may not go. A recent study found that 1 in 3 patients who are eligible don’t receive a referral to cardiac rehab from their doctor, and only 1 in 4 patients referred actually went. So there is a big gap in accessing cardiac rehab programs.
Be sure to ask about cardiac rehab and take advantage of it if you can. Read on to find out more about this program, who should enroll and what to expect.
Cardiac rehab is a supervised exercise program that also provides education about nutrition, medication use and general lifestyle choices to help patients strengthen their hearts and lead healthier lives.
Your therapy team will work with you to tailor a program that fits your life and needs.
The main goal of any cardiac rehabilitation program is to lower the likelihood of future heart problems or related death. And as many people who’ve participated these programs can attest, it can help you feel better physically and emotionally and give you greater control over your health.
Through the program, you will learn how to:
- Improve your physical fitness and exercise safely
- Adopt a heart-healthy diet
- Manage other cardiovascular risk factors
- Keep up with and follow your treatment plan
- Focus on your emotional health and the importance of staying engaged socially
Cardiac rehab can be lifesaving for many people. It can help to prevent future heart problems, cardiac events and related deaths. According to studies, people who go to cardiac rehab have up to 30% fewer fatal heart events, and are 25% less likely to die compared with people who get standard therapy alone. They also can lower their chance of a second heart attack or heart surgery.
People who enroll in this program typically have more success when it comes to controlling other cardiovascular risk factors (for example, high blood pressure or cholesterol). That’s because cardiac rehab programs are comprehensive, focusing on the whole patient and equipping him or her with the tools and information needed to make long-term health changes possible.
Other benefits include:
- Less chest pain and, in some cases, less need for medications to treat it
- Preventing future hospital stays
- Weight loss
- Better nutrition and the know-how to make heart-healthy choices
- Reduced stress and greater emotional well-being
- A recent heart attack
- Stable chest pain, also called angina
- Heart failure
- Heart procedures such as percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), which includes angioplasty or cardiac stenting
- Heart surgery such as coronary artery bypass surgery, heart valve repair or replacement
- Heart or heart–lung transplant
The program typically includes a combination of:
- Supervised exercise training to improve cardiovascular fitness—an assessment will be done to tailor the program to your fitness level. The type and intensity of physical activity recommended will depend on the severity of your heart condition, and your therapist may check your blood pressure and oxygen level several times during your session.
Generally, your exercise routine will include both aerobic exercise (to get your heart rate up) and muscle-strengthening activities, which may include lifting weights or using elastic bands.
- Nutrition counseling to help you eat a heart-healthy diet.
- Education about your condition and how to best keep up with medical therapies and manage other cardiovascular risk factors, including smoking cessation.
- Skills-building and emotional support to boost your ability to cope—you may have access to a counselor or social worker, as well as peer support. Focusing on the emotional piece of having a cardiac problem or recovering post-surgery is important.
Depression and anxiety are common among people with heart disease or who’ve had a heart attack or heart surgery. Many of these programs also offer ways to lower stress.
Your exercise program will take place at the rehab center. Your rehab team will work with you to choose the best exercises for you, and help you decide how often you need to do them.
- Walking (outside or on a treadmill)
- Climbing stairs
Generally 3-5 days per week, 30-45 minutes per session
Strengthening Activities (Resistance Training)
- Lifting weights —hand weights, free weights, or weight machines
- Using a wall pulley
- Using elastic bands
- Using your own body
Generally two or three days per week; each activity is usually done in sets. For example, bicep curls you might do three sets of 10.
Remember that to participate, you need a referral. Make sure to ask your doctor if you are eligible, and encourage anyone else you know who has a heart condition to do the same.
Ask your care team about cardiac rehab, whether you might benefit and how it fits with your overall treatment plan. Below are some questions that may help:
- Do I qualify for cardiac rehab?
- Which program would you recommend based on my condition/recovery?
- What will I get out of this program?
- Are there any things about my medical history that I should share with the rehab team?
- How is the progress I make in cardiac rehab relayed to my cardiologist or primary care doctor?
- What’s the most important change I can make in my diet?
- Should I lose weight? How much? Will the rehab team help me set initial goals for weight-loss?
- What’s the right type and amount of exercise for me? What is my exercise prescription during cardiac rehab and when I leave cardiac rehab?
- When might I notice an improvement in my ability to exercise?
- Is there a counselor or social worker I can talk to about managing stress and how to live well with my condition?
- How can I build on the progress I make in cardiac rehab after I complete the program?
What happens inside your body during exercise
Cardio versus strength training: What you need to know
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