How healthy is your heart? Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Every year, more than 800,000 Americans have a heart attack, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 1 in 4 cases, the person had previously had a heart attack.
“Fortunately, the risks of another heart attack can be reduced,” says Poulina Uddin, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic. “Participating in a cardiac rehabilitation program following a heart attack can help strengthen the heart muscle. It can lower the risk of future heart problems.”
Studies show cardiac rehab, as it is also known, can help a person recover from a heart problem and prevent one in the future. In fact, it can help reduce the chances of dying within five years of a heart attack or bypass surgery by up to 30 percent, according to the CDC.
Anyone who has had a heart problem, such as a heart attack, heart failure or a heart procedure — such as coronary artery bypass graft surgery, angioplasty, stenting or valve replacement — can benefit from cardiac rehabilitation. Studies show it can help people with mild, moderate and severe heart problems.
“Cardiac rehab is not just for people who’ve suffered a heart attack,” Dr. Uddin says. “People of all ages who have a heart condition can benefit.”
These programs address the risk factors associated with heart disease and improve an individual’s overall health. “Ideally, participants will make these lifestyle changes permanent, and continue the healthy habits they learned in the program throughout their lives,” she says.
Most cardiac rehabilitation programs are in hospitals. Patients are supervised by a team of specialists. This often includes a cardiologist, nurse, exercise physiologist and a registered dietitian. After a medical evaluation, the rehab team develops a program tailored to the patient’s specific needs and abilities.
“A core element of these programs is cardiovascular exercise,” Dr. Uddin says. “This has multiple benefits beyond strengthening the heart. It can also help maintain a healthy weight, relieve stress and improve mood.”
Generally, patients begin with mild exercise several times a week on a walking track, treadmill or stationary bicycle. Heart rate, blood pressure and EKG are monitored throughout the program. As they become stronger, their sessions may become longer or more challenging. Activities, such as light weight training, may be added to improve strength, flexibility and balance.
In conjunction with its cardiac rehabilitation program, Scripps offers complementary medicine services at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine. This includes acupuncture, biofeedback and therapeutic yoga.
A recent clinical trial that looked at the benefits of yoga after a heart attack found that yoga-based cardiac rehab was safe and improved quality of life, according to the American College of Cardiology.
“Yoga is a good way to reconnect mind, body and spirit. It can help build up your resilience to face whatever stressors or obstacles come your way,” says Dr. Uddin, who is a certified yoga instructor.
In addition to exercise, cardiac rehab programs often include nutritional guidance. A registered dietitian can help with weight loss, educate patients about heart-healthy foods and help them create appropriate eating plans. Stress management is another part of the program. Patients learn relaxation skills and other ways to manage and reduce negative emotions.
Cardiac rehabilitation participants often meet and get to know others who've had heart problems and can relate to their physical and emotional recovery.
These participants often exercise together, both in and out of the program. They look to each other for support as they learn to make lifestyle changes.
Ask your physician or cardiologist if cardiac rehabilitation is appropriate for you. Medicare and many insurance plans cover these programs for qualified candidates.