Cardiac Rehabilitation: Exercising for Your Heart

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After a cardiac event, it can be nerve-racking to think about exercise again. How much exercise is too much? What’s an appropriate timeframe to wait before beginning exercise? What exercises are best for heart health? With lots of questions surrounding this topic, UnityPoint Health cardiologist, Mohammed Saghir, M.D., discusses the importance of cardiac rehabilitation, as heart patients work their way back into a regular exercise routine.

Benefits of Cardiac Rehabilitation

“Following a cardiac event, such as a heart attack, patients are normally enrolled in outpatient cardiac rehabilitation,” Dr. Saghir says. “These are generally hour-long sessions, three times a week, for two to three months. Cardiac rehabilitation is covered by insurance and not limited to heart attacks.”

Cardiac rehabilitation is also recommended after heart valve repair or replacement, heart or heart and lung transplant, chronic heart failure and more. While cardiac rehabilitation allows patients to start exercising again, it also helps prevent them from experiencing another heart event or being admitted back to the hospital.

“In addition to the known cardiovascular benefits of exercise, cardiac rehab is associated with a 25 percent relative risk reduction in cardiovascular death and a 20 percent relative risk reduction in hospital admission,” Dr. Saghir says.

However, Dr. Saghir explains how improved psychologic health is another benefit of cardiac rehabilitation.

“Structured exercise helps with the psychologic and physiologic consequences of cardiac illness. After a heart attack, patients often have an understandable component of depression, anxiety and fear to perform physical activity. Performing structured exercise in a monitored setting helps considerably to alleviate this concern.”

What to Expect in Cardiac Rehabilitation

Dr. Saghir outlines what patient can expect, if they’re not sure how to prepare for their first cardiac rehabilitation session.

“Generally, cardiac rehabilitation sessions involve a brief warm-up and stretching period, followed by 30-40 minutes of aerobic exercise. This can involve treadmill, stationary bicycle, elliptical or rowing machines. Sometimes, resistance training is incorporated. Finally, the session ends with a cool-down period. Throughout these sessions, vital signs and heart electrical activity (EKG) are monitored,” Dr. Saghir says.

After participating in cardiac rehabilitation for the determined period of time, heart patients can move forward and begin exercising on their own.

“The goal after cardiac rehab is for patients to participate in regular physical activity and exercise. Sometimes, patients maintain a relationship with the rehab facility afterward because of the structured program compared to self-initiated activity at home,” Dr. Saghir says.

Exercises Best for Heart Health

After completing cardiac rehabilitation, Dr. Saghir suggests continuing regular exercise to help in reducing the risk to future cardiac event, lowering blood pressure, improving lipid profiles, lowering weight and improving control of diabetes.

“Aerobic activities, such as jogging are helpful, but even walking 30 minutes a day for five days a week is healthy and is associated with lower cardiovascular risk. Rowing and moderate weight lifting are protective as well. Generally, most structured exercises are helpful, providing they are performed frequently. Ultimately, the exercise program and how hard one pushes one's self should be tailored to the individual patient in consultation with the patient's cardiologist and cardiac rehab team.”

If you have questions about exercises to benefit your heart health, contact your UnityPoint Health primary care provider.