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How Cardiac Rehab Could Improve Your Health and Extend Your Life

Maybe you had a heart attack, heart valve repair or even a heart transplant. Along with your heart problem, when you were hospitalized, it’s likely your muscles became deconditioned. You went home feeling weak and tired. You want to be as healthy as you were before—in fact, you’d love to be even healthier. But you’re terrified that you might do something that could damage your heart.

Cardiac rehabilitation might be just what you need. Cardiac rehab programs are comprehensive services where you exercise under supervision, learn about modifying your cardiac risk factors and undergo counseling. 

“They help you psychologically better cope with and recover from cardiovascular disease,” said Anantharam Kalya, MD, a medical director of cardiac rehabilitation with Banner - University Medicine. With cardiac rehab, you can function better, exercise more and improve your overall well-being.

Who can benefit from cardiac rehab?

Cardiac rehab programs can help whether your health issue is major or minor. They are endorsed by the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American College of Cardiology and are designed for people who:

  • Recently had a heart attack
  • Recently underwent cardiac catheterization or a stenting procedure
  • Have stable chest pain while on maximum doses of medications
  • Had heart valve repair
  • Received a heart transplant
  • Have heart failure with low heart function
  • Have narrowing of the arteries in their legs

How does cardiac rehab help?

Exercise is a big part of cardiac rehab since it reduces the risk of death after a heart attack and the risk of future heart attacks. It helps you function better, so you can get back to work and the activities you enjoy. You can learn how to take your medication as recommended and how to make changes to your diet that can improve your health. “It can help you work toward an ideal weight, improve your cholesterol levels and blood pressure and lower your blood sugar,” Dr. Kalya said.

What happens in cardiac rehab?

A team of people works with you during cardiac rehab—a medical director, nurses, exercise specialists, nutritionists and psychologists. There are three phases of cardiac rehab:

  • Phase one starts when you’re in the hospital and may include walking in the halls and beginning your education.
  • Phase two is a two- to three-month program where you’ll go to a cardiac rehab center three times a week.
  • Phase three is when you continue exercising and sticking with your healthy lifestyle changes on your own.

The first step is a medical evaluation and baseline assessment. The team will take your medical history and may also request cardiac imaging, an electrocardiogram (ECG), blood tests and an exercise stress test. After that, your team will develop your personalized cardiac rehab plan that includes:

  • Exercise training. Most people exercise for an hour, three times a week for 8 to 12 weeks (about 3 months). You’ll be monitored with an electrocardiogram and be under medical supervision when you exercise, so you know you’re progressing at the correct rate for your heart and your overall health. You might use a treadmill, stationary bike or elliptical trainer and you may also do strength training with resistance bands or free weights. As you get fitter, you’ll exercise more intensely.
  • Physical activity counseling. You’ll learn about the types of exercise that can keep your heart at its best and maintain or improve your overall fitness.
  • Nutritional counseling and weight management. You’ll learn what foods are good for your heart and how to work these foods into the meals and snacks you’re accustomed to eating.
  • Care for your other conditions. People with heart problems may also have diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels or other health conditions. Cardiac rehab can help you learn how these conditions affect your heart health and how to keep them under control. If you smoke, smoking cessation may be a part of your program.
  • Psychosocial support. People who experience heart problems may also have mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, and cardiac rehab can help you connect with help. Counselors can also teach you ways to control your stress.
  • Medication education. Your rehab team will explain the purpose of your medications and possible side effects. They’ll help you understand why taking your medicine as directed is essential and what to do if you’re having any trouble with it. 

You’ll usually participate in cardiac rehab as part of a group, so you may form relationships with people who are dealing with similar heart problems and who share your concerns.

After you finish your cardiac rehab appointments, your team will help you develop an exercise plan you can follow on your own, at home or at a local gym.

How do you get started with cardiac rehab?

Your doctor may recommend one or more places that provide cardiac rehab in your area. Be sure to find one that’s convenient for you, with the services and hours you need. They should be certified through the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation (AACVPR) and have trained staff overseeing your rehab program. You’ll need a referral from your doctor to get insurance coverage, and you may want to choose a cardiac rehab center that’s in-network for your insurance company.

Can you do cardiac rehab at home?

Yes, in some cases. If you’re at low or intermediate risk and you can’t attend cardiac rehab at a center, you might be able to complete the program at home. “It’s possible to provide supervised exercise training, education and outcome assessment through a secure connection using a personal mobile device,” Dr. Kalya said. And research has found that at-home programs are effective.

The bottom line

Cardiac rehab can help you improve your health and learn how to make changes that will help keep you healthy for life. Talk to your doctor if you think you might benefit from cardiac rehab. Dr. Kalya said that only up to a third of eligible patients nationwide are being referred. Private insurance, Medicare and Medicaid often cover cardiac rehab for people who qualify. If you would like to talk to a cardiologist or another health care professional to learn more about the benefits of cardiac rehab, reach out to Banner Health.

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