What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Do to Help a Loved One Recover From a Heart Attack

Start by encouraging cardiac rehab

Your husband is parked in front of the flat-screen TV and won’t leave your house. True, he’s had a heart attack, and it takes time to recover. But as you recuperate from a heart attack, there are things you should do to help reduce your risk of a second heart attack.

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“It may be easier to tell someone you love, ‘It’s OK if you don’t want to get up and move around today,’ but you’re not doing them any favors,” says Cardiac Rehabilitation Program Director Erik Van Iterson, PhD.

“After a major cardiac event, it’s essential to refrain from slipping into sedentary habits and to make heart-healthy lifestyle choices. Sometimes a little tough love helps — your loved one will appreciate it over the long term.”

Why is cardiac rehab so important?

One of the first things to do is to ask your primary care doctor or cardiologist if they recommend cardiac rehabilitation, Dr. Van Iterson suggests. If so, ask how to enroll — and call your insurer to confirm that rehab will be covered.

Then encourage your partner to go. Research shows that cardiac rehab lowers the risk of death and hospitalization for five years or longer after major cardiac events. It also improves the quality of everyday life.

“Cardiac rehab will make it easier for your loved one to navigate your home, do normal chores, go to the grocery store and walk around your neighborhood independently,” he explains.

“We take all of these things for granted; but after a major event or heart surgery, it’s often hard to do them independently.”

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Who should go to cardiac rehab?

Technically, anyone can participate in cardiac rehab. But you’ll want to ask what your insurer considers to be a qualifying event, based on your condition, to make sure these services are covered, says Dr. Van Iterson.

For example, while you may be responsible for a copay, Medicare will cover the majority of your out-of-pocket costs for cardiac rehab if you’ve had one of these events or procedures: 

What does cardiac rehab involve?

If you think cardiac rehab is about exercise, you’re partly right. But there’s much more to it. Cardiac rehab is an all-encompassing program for patients and families that involves:

  • Learning about nutrition. “It helps you understand how to prepare food, which foods to purchase at the grocery store, the importance of portion control, and which dishes to choose from a restaurant menu,” says Dr. Van Iterson.
  • Learning lifestyle management strategies. “It’s not useful to say, ‘I’ll be good for 12 weeks after my heart attack,” he explains. “But the rehab team also doesn’t want you to have to think too hard about how to be healthy. Living a heart-healthy lifestyle shouldn’t be like having a second job. We want behaviors to become intrinsic, so you carry them forward into the rest of your life.”
  • Supervised exercise training. Once your cardiologist prescribes a safe level of exercise, exercise physiologists can help you create goals and tailor a controlled, progressive program for you based on your medical history and preferred form of exercise.

“During cardiac rehab, trained professionals are in the room at all times. You’re also hooked up to monitors measuring heart rate and rhythm, blood pressure and perceived exertion,” he says.

What shouldn’t you do after someone has a heart attack?

“Many patients who are recovering don’t feel well, and don’t want to get up and move around,” says Dr. Van Iterson.

“But being sedentary during acute and long-term recovery is the worst thing you can do for your heart. Cardiac rehab is a vital next step in your care and has global health benefits.”

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So be careful not to minimize its value; encourage your partner to go. Encourage them to finish, too. Research shows that completing all 36 sessions leads to a better recovery than completing even 35.

And remember to put your feet in your loved one’s shoes. The foods you buy and the meals you prepare can support their recovery or become a barrier to their success.

If they’d dearly love a cheeseburger, for instance, try not to eat one in front of them. If they’re tempted by snacks, don’t leave cookies, chips or other fatty, processed foods lying around.

And if they don’t want to leave the couch and go to rehab, offer to drive them — and then stay for the session. After all, what you learn about heart-healthy living will benefit you in the long run, too.

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