The Most Underused Treatment in America

Cardiac rehabilitation can help heart patients live a lot longer

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Every year, doctors advise thousands of patients to enroll in cardiac rehabilitation programs.  And every year, thousands of patients ignore them. This turns out to be a bad idea.  A Cleveland Clinic study shows that cardiac rehabilitation can help heart patients live a lot longer – and why.

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“Cardiac rehabilitation is the most underused treatment in America,” says Leslie Cho, MD, lead author of the study and director of the Cleveland Clinic Women’s Cardiovascular Center.  “If we had a medicine that could make this dramatic an impact, it would be the blockbuster drug of the century.”

Cardiac rehabilitation is defined in the study as physician-supervised exercise, typically three times a week, which included 10-15 minutes of warm-up and stretching, 30-50 minutes of continuous aerobic activity, and 15-20 minutes of cool-down.  Unfortunately, only 10 to 20 percent of patients who are candidates for structured rehabilitation ever participate.

Not only are too few patients participating in structured rehabilitation, too few doctors are recommending it.  “Patients aren’t being informed that cardiac rehabilitation can help them live longer,” says Dr. Cho.

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Structure, it turns out, is critical.  “You shouldn’t just tell the patient to ‘go exercise, do your best and good luck,’” says Dr. Cho.

The study showed that cardiac rehabilitation affects a key metric of heart health: return of heart rate to normal after exercise.  As you know, your heart beats faster when you exercise and when you stop it slows down again.  Heart disease patients whose hearts return to normal more quickly live longer than those whose heart rates return to normal more slowly. So what cardiac rehabilitation does is train the heart to quickly return to its normal rate after exercise.

“There’s no medicine that can improve mortality like that,” says Dr. Cho.  The study appears in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

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Learn how to choose a cardiac rehabilitation program.

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