Exercise is always important for your heart health and your overall well-being. And that’s especially true after you’ve had a heart attack. However, starting to exercise after a heart attack can be difficult and scary.
“Having a heart attack can be a traumatic event. Many people are worried about doing more damage to their heart, or they are unsure what their heart can handle, so they avoid any activity,” said Ashley Murphy, a clinical exercise physiologist and cardiac services manager with Banner Health. “Plus, after a heart attack, many people are hyper-aware of their bodies and they aren’t sure what is normal and what they should be concerned about.”
But exercise can be a safe and beneficial part of your recovery, as long as you follow your health care team’s guidance and take some precautions.
“Your heart is a muscle, and just like any other muscle in your body, exercise helps it get stronger. Exercise not only helps you recover from a heart attack, but it can also expedite your recovery, and may even help you improve your heart function,” Murphy said. “Exercise also helps lower your risk of future heart attacks and can help combat fatigue and low energy, which people often complain of during recovery.”
Exercise also helps you improve other factors that can influence your heart health. It can:
- Improve cholesterol levels
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduce blood sugar and A1C levels
- Help you achieve or maintain a healthy weight
- Relieve stress
- Improve mood
What to know before you start exercising
The first thing you’ll want to do is to get medical clearance. Once cleared by your doctor to exercise, an evaluation by a health care provider specializing in cardiac rehab can help you know where to start and what exercise is safe for you to do. The timeframe for starting exercise is different for everyone, depending on your treatment plan and how recovery is progressing.
After getting the OK to start, begin with low-intensity exercises and gradually build the intensity, duration and frequency. That way, your body can adapt and you’ll lower your risk of complications. The goal is to work up to 150 minutes of aerobic exercise spread out in 30- to 60-minute sessions, three to five days per week.
Consider joining a cardiac rehab program. These programs are designed for people who have had heart attacks or other heart problems. In cardiac rehab, you’ll have medically supervised exercise sessions, education on how to modify your lifestyle and monitoring by health care providers.
“Cardiac rehab gives you a safe and supportive environment for recovery,” Murphy said. “It can help ease some of your fears and help you build confidence that you can exercise safely.”
Try a mix of these types of exercise
You can choose from many different types of exercise, and they all benefit your body in different ways.
- Aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, stair climbing, pool walking or low-impact aerobics can help improve your cardiovascular fitness and strengthen your heart. “This type of exercise makes your heart beat faster and is the most beneficial for your heart,” Murphy said.
- Strength training can help improve your muscle tone, increase your metabolism and enhance your overall physical function. Be sure to use proper form and start with light weights gradually working up to heavier weights, following the advice of your health care team.
- Flexibility work, such as stretching or gentle yoga, can improve joint mobility and posture, reduce muscle tension and enhance movement.
How to stay safe when you’re exercising
You can take steps to get the most from your exercise program while lowering your risk of injury or health complications:
- Warm up before you exercise and cool down afterward: Help your body prepare to exercise and return to a resting state by gently stretching and doing some light aerobic activity.
- Monitor your heart rate to make sure you’re exercising in a safe range. “A good place to start is aiming for 20 to 40 beats above your resting heart rate,” Murphy said. Some medications prescribed after a heart attack can affect your heart rate, so talk to your health care team about what your target heart rate should be.
- Start slowly: Your effort should feel light to moderate. “It’s not necessary to push yourself to 100%,” Murphy said. When you increase your time or workload, change one thing at a time. For example, if you are walking on a treadmill, don’t increase your time, speed and incline all on the same day.
- Listen to your body: Pay attention if you feel discomfort or excessive fatigue. If you experience chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness or other concerning symptoms, stop exercising and seek medical attention, even if these symptoms go away when you rest.
- Don’t hold your breath: This is particularly important in strength training as holding your breath can increase your blood pressure and put extra stress on your heart.
- Be mindful of your environment: If it’s extremely cold or hot, move your workout indoors.
- Keep nitroglycerin with you while exercising if your doctor has prescribed it, and make sure you understand how to take it.
Other steps you can take
Exercise can make a big difference when you’re recovering from a heart attack, but it’s not the only thing you can do. You can also improve your heart health by choosing a balanced diet, managing stress, quitting smoking and maintaining a healthy weight.
Also keep in mind that you don’t need to tackle your recovery alone. Regaining your health after a heart attack is tough. Lean on your friends, family and health care team. They can help you stay motivated and accountable. You may want to join a support group or find exercise partners who can encourage you and help you stay consistent.
The bottom line
It can be challenging or scary to start exercising after you’ve had a heart attack, but it’s one of the best things you can do for your heart. By following the instructions of your health care team and progressing gradually, you can strengthen your heart and reduce your risk of another heart attack.
Everyone’s recovery and exercise program should be tailored to their needs. If you would like to connect with a provider who can help design a program that works for you, reach out to Banner Health.