If you’ve had a heart attack or heart surgery, your doctor is likely to recommend cardiac rehabilitation, a 12-week program designed to help you strengthen your heart and reduce the likelihood of another heart event.
It’s a simple program that can be a lifesaver—cardiac rehab reduces mortality by more than 50 percent, compared with patients who don’t do it, according to the American Heart Association. Still, few people take advantage of it.
You’ll need a doctor’s referral and to commit to attending an hourlong class three times a week.
Read on to find out how cardiac rehab can improve overall health, helping you live better with heart disease.
Physical Benefits: Become a Stronger You
Cardiac rehab focuses on reducing risk factors for heart disease, such as excess weight and high blood pressure. Light to moderate aerobic activity can do the trick. Patients use equipment such as treadmills, stationary bicycles and elliptical machines, aiming to increase their workload as the sessions progress. So a patient who starts out walking 2 mph on a treadmill with no incline might, 12 weeks later, be walking at 3.5 mph with varying grades of incline.
If you’re working out in cardiac rehab, the staff is monitoring you every step of the way to make sure your heart is responding well throughout. They keep track of your heart rate, rhythm, blood pressure and, if you have diabetes, blood sugar. This ensures your workout is effective and safe. And because all your numbers are logged in an electronic system, your cardiologist can see how you’re doing, too.
Mental Health Benefits: You Can Do This
It’s natural to feel uncertain about your life and abilities after a heart attack or surgery. Many people feel anxious about exercising or playing with their children or grandchildren. Some feel they’ve lost their identity as a healthy person.
Cardiac rehab can help you recover your confidence and sense of well-being, all while reducing one of the risk factors for heart disease: stress. Exercise releases feel-good endorphins and gives you ownership over your recovery. The nurses, exercise physiologists and therapists who conduct the sessions give advice on stress management and lead progressive relaxation exercises.
All this leads to a sense of empowerment that helps you see opportunities, not just limitations, in living with heart disease.
Nutritional Benefits: Food Matters
Of course, exercise alone won’t make your heart as healthy as it can be. What you eat is a major factor in your success. That’s why part of cardiac rehab is nutrition education from a registered dietitian who is also a trained diabetes educator. A dietitian provides both individual counseling and group education, including a session for family members.
Don’t expect the dietitian to prescribe a rigid, eat-this-but-never-that “diet,” however. A heart-healthy diet is a lifestyle change, not a set of rules. The dietitian teaches skills such as reading food labels, limiting sodium and choosing healthier fats.
The great news? Patients who change how they eat in small but significant ways often see weight loss, especially when combined with the program’s exercises. That’s good for your heart and makes you feel good about yourself.
Support Benefits: You’re Not in This Alone
Cardiac rehab exercises are personalized for each patient, but they’re done in a group. So you’ll be spending time with—and getting support from—other people who also have heart disease. That helps you know you’re not alone, even when things are challenging.
Patients get inspiration and advice from what other patients are going through or have experienced in the past. No one is required or expected to socialize, but people inevitably form friendships and help keep each other motivated. And because people enter rehab when they need to, everyone in the class is at different stages of the program; that can help inspire newcomers to see that progress is possible.
UNC Health Care providers offer cardiac rehab throughout the region: Chatham Hospital in Siler City, Johnston Health in Smithfield, Lenoir Memorial Hospital in Kinston, Nash Health Care in Rocky Mount, Pardee Hospital in Hendersonville, UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill, UNC REX Healthcare in Raleigh and Cary, and Wayne Memorial Hospital in Goldsboro.