There's nothing like physical activity to keep your heart strong, and this is especially true of exercise after heart attack. People who exercise regularly after having a heart attack, along with taking other strides toward good health, may live longer and enjoy a better quality of life, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Being active every day is key to a healthy heart. Aerobic exercise — walking, jogging, swimming or biking and the like — helps keep your heart strong. Strength exercises builds your stamina while stretching increases your flexibility.
Note, not all exercises are suitable for everyone. Before engaging in any physical activity, please consult with your doctor about how much and what kind of physical activity is right for you.
First Step: Cardiac Rehabilitation
It may be helpful to take advantage of cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) if it's available to you as part of your treatment plan. Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program designed to help you recover after a heart attack, according to the Mayo Clinic. This three- to six-month program will teach you how to safely begin exercising after heart attack and take other steps to prevent another cardiac event. You may have received a referral to cardiac rehab when you were discharged from the hospital. If you didn't, you can ask your doctor for more information on your options.
People who participate in cardiac rehab have 30 percent fewer fatal heart events, the American College of Cardiology reports. One study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology found that people who had a heart attack and received early cardiac rehabilitation were healthier and could walk longer when tested after 30 days compared with people who didn't participate in rehab.
Exercise Safety Tips for After a Heart Attack
If you don't go to cardiac rehab, you'll likely be able to begin gentle exercise after heart attack, with your doctor's OK. How much exercise and its intensity will depend on how active you were before your cardiac event and how severe the event was. Be sure to follow your doctor's advice.
In general, it's important to start exercising as soon as you can after a heart attack to get your energy and strength back, according to the AHA. Both aerobic and strength exercises are great for your heart, but it may be challenging to take it slowly at the beginning. Before diving back into the pool, talk to your doctor, who can help you modify your old workout routines.
Generally, the National Institutes of Health suggests these general guidelines for exercise after heart attack:
- Walk first. It's the perfect activity during your recovery; it's aerobic, which is great for your heart, but less stressful.
- Map out a flat route. Start with a level road, indoor walking track or at the mall before moving on to inclines and hills.
- Build gradually. You may want to start by walking for five minutes at a time for the first week before increasing to 10 minutes during the second week until you have built up to 30 minutes after six weeks. If you're a runner, for example, after you can walk comfortably for 30 minutes, start with a slow jog for a block and then walk for a block before going long as you progress.
- Warm up, cool down and stretch. Your walk should be slower at the start and as you finish. Once you've completed the workout, be sure to stretch.
- Avoid high-intensity cardio or heavy lifting. Take it easy! If you're sprinting so hard it's difficult to talk or you're pumping iron but straining to lift heavy objects, dial it down a notch. Strength training is important for your health, but don't start until your doctor says it's OK.
- Avoid too cold and too hot. For the sake of your heart, exercise in mild weather or indoors.
- After six weeks, try doing more. With your doctor's permission, you can start adding in new exercise after six weeks, such as swimming or playing golf.
Watch for Cardiac Warning Signs
To be safe with exercise after a heart attack, stop physical activity and call your doctor if you experience any of the symptoms that came on during your heart attack, or if you feel:
- Chest pain, pressure, tightness or heaviness
- Pain or pressure in your arm, neck or jaw
- Extreme shortness of breath
- Uneven or very fast heartbeat
- Indigestion or gas
- Perspiration and a loss of color
- Numbness in your arms
- Extreme fatigue after exercise
If you have chest discomfort (angina), stop exercising and call your doctor if your symptoms become worse, occur more often, last longer than usual, begin happening when you're not exercising or don't go away after taking your medication. It may mean your heart disease is getting out of hand.
Without any cardiac complications, stay active with regular exercise after heart attack. The AHA recommends building up to exercising 30 minutes a day five times a week to keep your heart in shape, especially for heart attack recovery. Focus on being physically active every day to have a healthy, happy heart!