After surviving a heart attack, many vouch to do everything they can to prevent another attack. Unfortunately, this often means avoiding exercise, one of the best things they can do for their heart.
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“We have strong evidence that engaging in regular aerobic exercise after a heart attack reduces the risk of death,” says Erik Van Iterson, PhD, Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation.
It’s natural to feel you should protect your heart by avoiding exercise-based stress, but the opposite is true: A damaged heart needs to be strengthened, not coddled, he says.
“If you were not active before your heart attack, it’s particularly important that you make exercise a priority. If you were active before your heart attack, don’t be afraid to resume the same activities, once you get clearance from your physician,” he says. “The best way to do this is to enroll in a cardiac rehab program. In fact, we recommend cardiac rehab for all patients after a heart attack.”
What “exercise” means
After a heart attack, you need to engage in aerobic exercises, which move the legs to propel the entire body. These activities help the heart contract more forcefully to pump more oxygenated blood.
“I can’t overstate the importance of using the large muscles of the legs by walking, biking, swimming or jogging. Chair-based exercises or sitting on a machine in the gym won’t do the job,” says Dr. Van Iterson.
Make it a daily habit
An optimal plan to strengthen your heart requires engaging in aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes a day a minimum of three days a week. However, you can’t assume this alone will be enough to protect against another heart attack. Dr. Van Iterson encourages heart-attack survivors to rethink their commitment to a heart-healthy lifestyle with prioritization of exercise.
“Don’t be satisfied with doing the minimum. You really need to be active seven days a week,” he says.
You have plenty of choices, ranging from mall walking to engaging in active housework or gardening. “Pilates, yoga and dancing are great complements to traditional cardiovascular exercise. By themselves, however, these activities aren’t enough to protect against a heart attack, but they can be incorporated
into a comprehensive exercise plan,” says Dr. Van Iterson.
Turn over a new leaf
If you were never active before your heart attack — or quit being active years ago — you may find it challenging to develop an exercise plan and stick with it. Dr. Van Iterson suggests you consult a cardiac rehabilitation specialist for advice. Such visits should be covered by Medicare.
Don’t fear exercise. It won’t be the same as what you did in high school. “We won’t advise you to run laps around a track or sprint from one end of a gym to the other. These are not appropriate for patients who have had a heart attack or undergone coronary artery bypass grafting or a percutaneous coronary intervention,” he says.
“We will help you figure out what exercise would be best for you and how much you need to do to gain health benefits,” he explains.
Your ability to continue doing these activities will also be considered. “We know you can’t go to cardiac rehab for the rest of your life. Our goal is to devise an exercise program you can continue at home or at a recreation center or gym.”
Reap the intangible benefits
While the goal of exercising your heart is to hold off another heart attack, the intangible benefits of exercising with others can be equally appealing.
Heart attacks tend to occur in later adulthood, when many people have lost their significant other and now live alone. This often leaves them open to welcoming the engaging social interaction encountered in a cardiac rehab environment.
“Coming to cardiac rehab several days a week can help fill the void of losing a partner,” says Dr. Van Iterson.
Those who invest the time in cardiac rehab often find they look forward to being with others who have undergone the same experience.
“The social component is why group exercise programs tend to be more effective than individual efforts. Attendance is better when you know that someone is waiting for you,” he says.
This article originally appeared in Cleveland Clinic Heart Advisor.