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Heart Health Special Report

Cardiac Rehab Works: Here’s How

If you've had a heart attack or heart surgery, you and your doctor can take many steps to help you recover and improve your heart health. One of the most effective is cardiac rehabilitation -- supervised exercise and other assistance in designing a heart-healthy lifestyle. The goal of cardiac rehab is to give you the tools to make lasting lifestyle changes.

Cardiac rehab not only aids your short-term recovery from a heart attack, angioplasty, or bypass surgery but can also make a lasting difference by helping you revamp your diet, develop a regular exercise routine, reduce stress, and make other changes for the better. Yet recent studies reveal that cardiac rehab is used far less often than recommended.

Who's Missing Out? A study in Circulation examined cardiac rehab use among more than 267,000 Medicare patients who had been hospitalized for a heart attack or bypass surgery. It found that just 14% of heart attack survivors and 31% of bypass patients received rehab after discharge.

Another study by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reached similar conclusions: About two thirds of Americans who survive a heart attack do not undergo cardiac rehab after leaving the hospital. Why the shortfall? One prime reason may be that patients -- and even some doctors -- are not aware of the potential benefits of cardiac rehab.

How Does It Work? In general, cardiac rehab happens in "phases." If you're hospitalized for a heart attack or cardiac surgery, your rehab will ideally begin while you're still in the hospital -- starting with such activities as simple range-of-motion exercises and then progressing to walking and some stair climbing, for instance.

After discharge, you can enter an outpatient cardiac rehab program. This second phase of cardiac rehab generally begins three to six weeks after you leave the hospital. Outpatient cardiac rehab is often conducted in small groups that meet two to three times per week. The rehab team, which may include nurses, physical therapists, dietitians, exercise specialists, and psychologists, will examine your particular heart condition and your risk factors for a future heart attack -- such as diabetes, smoking, depression, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol levels -- and then devise an individualized plan for you.

  • Exercise. Exercise is the cornerstone of any cardiac rehab plan. One of your goals is to increase your endurance; greater cardiovascular fitness is linked to a lower risk of heart attack and a longer life. Regular exercise also boosts levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, lowers blood pressure, helps manage weight, and may even give your mood and energy levels a lift.

    Exercising in a cardiac rehab setting has several advantages: It's safer than exercising on your own; you will learn proper exercise techniques (like warming up and cooling down); and the rehab team and fellow participants provide motivation.

  • Lifestyle education. One of the most daunting tasks in managing your heart health is making dietary changes. Many cardiac rehab programs offer nutrition counseling to help you make heart-wise food choices and, if necessary, lose weight. Such individualized help can improve your odds of sticking with a healthier eating plan.

  • Emotional support. Heart disease often takes an emotional toll, so you might benefit from the psychological services offered by many cardiac rehab programs. These can range from education on how to reduce stress to professional counseling for depression symptoms. You can also gain support from the other participants in the program. Simply being around others dealing with heart disease and knowing you are not alone can improve your emotional well-being.

Posted in Heart Health on June 18, 2010


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