How healthy is your heart? Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States; every year, about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack. Within five years of an initial heart attack, 15 percent of men and 22 percent of women ages 45-64—and 22 percent of men and women older than 65—will suffer another heart attack or fatal coronary event.
“Fortunately, that risk can be reduced,” says Matthew Lucks, MD, a cardiologist for Scripps Health. “Following a heart attack, participation in a professional cardiac rehabilitation program can help strengthen the heart muscle and lower the risk of future heart problems.”
Research shows that nearly 80 percent of heart attack patients who participate in a cardiac rehabilitation program are still alive three years later, compared to just 64 percent of those who did not take advantage of cardiac rehabilitation. In addition, the risk of having another heart attack has been shown to drop by 25 percent among patients who participate in a program.
Most cardiac rehabilitation programs are located within hospitals, where patients are medically supervised by a team of rehabilitation specialists that often includes a cardiologist, nurse, exercise physiologist, registered dietitian and other health care professionals. Following a medical evaluation, the rehab team develops a program tailored to the patient’s specific needs and abilities.
“A core element of cardiac rehabilitation programs is cardiovascular exercise,” notes Dr. Lucks. “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, exercise sessions may become longer or more challenging. Activities such as light weight training and yoga may be added to improve strength, flexibility and balance.
In addition to exercise, cardiac rehabilitation programs often include nutritional guidance from a registered dietitian, who can help with weight loss if needed, 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 tools to help them manage and reduce negative emotions.
“Many participants also find that cardiac rehabilitation can help them meet others who have had heart attacks or heart disease and can understand their physical and emotional recovery,” says Dr. Lucks. “Often, group participants will exercise together both in and out of the program, and look to each other for social support as they learn to make lifestyle changes."
Studies have shown that cardiac rehabilitation programs not only address the risk factors associated with heart disease, they positively affect an individual’s overall health status. Many participants report an improved quality of life and well-being. Ideally, participants will make these lifestyle changes permanent, and continue the healthy habits they learned in the program throughout their lives.
“You don’t have to have suffered a heart attack to be a candidate for cardiac rehabilitation,” adds Dr. Lucks. “These programs can benefit people of all ages who have a heart condition such as coronary artery disease (CAD), angina or heart failure.”
Cardiac rehabilitation has also been shown to benefit patients who have had heart procedures, such as coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery, angioplasty, stenting, valve replacement or peripheral vascular disease, as well as a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD).
Ask your physician or cardiologist if cardiac rehabilitation appropriate for you. Medicare and many insurance plans cover these programs for qualified candidates.