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Exercise Safely After a Heart Attack

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After a heart attack, heart surgery or other cardiac condition, it can be hard to know how much exercise is the right amount. However, exercise is important for your heart to stay healthy so don’t give up your daily walk just yet.

“Everyone is going to have a different approach and progress at a different pace with their exercise, especially after a cardiac event,” said Rachel Lasselle, MS, ACSM- CEP, a clinical exercise physiologist and the cardiac rehabilitation manager at Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital. “Many people find it helpful to be guided through the process in a place like cardiac rehabilitation, where a clinical exercise physiologist can individually work with you.”

Ms. Lasselle outlined what she tells her patients as they start an exercise program after a heart attack or other cardiac event. 

Start Slow

Maybe you have never had a regular exercise routine, or maybe it’s been a few years since exercise was part of your lifestyle. No matter where you were before, you will likely need to start over now. Ms. Lasselle recommended starting with small, achievable goals like walking for five to 10 minutes, two or three times a day and slowly increasing to longer walks.

“When beginning an exercise program or re-starting an exercise program after a cardiac event, we usually recommend working on achieving a longer duration of continuous exercise to build stamina or endurance,” she said. “Once your stamina has improved then you can focus on increasing the intensity of exercise.”

Listen to Your Body

It’s best not to push yourself too hard at first, so listen to your body’s cues during exercise. Stop exercising if you feel any tightness in your chest or shortness of breath. Adjust the duration or intensity of your exercise to keep yourself from becoming too winded.

Ms. Lasselle recommended the talk test while exercising: You will be breathing more heavily than normal but should still be able to speak one or two sentences without feeling the need to slow your pace or stop talking to catch your breath. 

You should also pay attention to how you feel the next day, suggested Ms. Lasselle. Pain or fatigue isn’t helpful for long-term improvement.

Always Warm up First

Warming up is always a good idea before exercise, but it’s especially important for people who have had a cardiac event. “Many cardiac patients need to allow their heart and blood vessels time to adjust to increased work,” said Ms. Lasselle. “Five or 10 minutes of exercising at a slower pace or level is usually enough to get your muscles warm and to prevent symptoms like chest tightness or discomfort.”

Fear Is Common; You Can Beat It

According to Ms. Lasselle, it’s common after a cardiac event for people to feel nervous about resuming physical activity or anything that causes your heart to work harder.

While it’s good to use caution for a while, conditioning your heart to be strong is the best thing you can do for yourself.

“Some people stop trusting their heart and become unsure of what limitations they might have. They’re afraid of doing something that might cause another cardiac event,” said Ms. Lasselle. “Participating in a cardiac rehabilitation program can help people renew their trust with their heart and build confidence in resuming activities they once enjoyed.”

In addition, Ms. Lasselle reported that patients often feel anxious about the future after a cardiac event. Turn that fear into positive action and work with your cardiology team to ensure you’re on the right path toward a heart healthy future. Those steps include:

  • Taking prescribed medication properly.
  • Attending follow up appointments with your cardiologist, primary care provider and cardiac rehabilitation team.
  • Making necessary lifestyle changes like eating healthier; managing stress, anxiety and depression; increasing your physical activity and exercise; and stopping tobacco use.

Best Exercises for Your Heart

The best cardiac exercise is something that gets your heart pumping a little faster for a certain amount of time, usually at least 10 minutes. This type of activity is called aerobic exercise and includes:

  • Walking.
  • Jogging.
  • Biking.
  • Swimming.

“Walking is often the easiest and most convenient exercise for people to start, but it’s not always comfortable if you have muscle or joint pain,” said Ms. Lasselle.

Looking for a gym with low-impact exercise equipment like an elliptical machine, stationary bike, or cross trainer like a NuStep can help if you have physical limitations.

“It’s important to know that you’re not alone after a cardiac event. It is possible to resume your job, volunteer work or hobbies with the right conditioning,” said Ms. Lasselle. “Joining a cardiac rehabilitation program is the perfect environment to make connections with others and to see the success they have had on their journey toward a heart healthy future.”

Learn more about cardiac rehabilitation near you. Most insurance companies have coverage for cardiac rehabilitation with a physician’s referral.