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Returning to exercise after a heart attack

Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital February 22, 2018 Wellness Articles

You know that living a healthy lifestyle after a heart attack is important but, when you’re recovering from a life-changing event, you might be wondering: Where do I start?

Talk to your doctor

First make sure it’s safe for you to start exercising, especially if you didn’t exercise regularly before your heart attack. Depending on your health and treatment plan, your cardiologist may recommend cardiac rehab or an exercise stress test before you begin working out. This is especially true for anyone who has undergone heart surgery and may be prohibited from turning, twisting or lifting in the weeks following surgery.

Always check to make sure it’s okay to begin a new routine, no matter what the intensity.

Think of exercise like a prescription

Once you’ve gotten approval from your cardiologist to exercise, make a commitment to do it regularly.

In 2014, the American Heart Association recommended that physicians “prescribe” exercise for stroke patients because there was such strong evidence that it improved their fitness level and their physical health. Think of heart attack recovery in the same way.

“Exercise is medicine. When you look at research that’s been done, regular activity after a heart attack is associated with people living longer and having a better quality of life,” says Karen Zipfel, PT, MSPT, advanced clinician at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital, part of Main Line Health.

Start small

It can be scary to start exercising after a cardiac event. You might be wondering: If I push myself too hard, will my heart be at risk? Am I working hard enough? Put your worries aside, says Zipfel, and start small.

“Don’t just sit and wait for your heart to get better. It will help your heart to heal and work more efficiently if you just start moving. Anything that involves moving your body will help you in the long run,” she explains.

Find a fitness routine that you enjoy, like swimming, dancing, yoga or riding your bike. Just getting started? Walking works, but don’t let yourself off easy.

“Walking is absolutely considered exercise, but make sure it’s a brisk walk. Walk with purpose so that it’s more of a workout,” says Zipfel.

Regardless of what workout you choose, build up to 40 minutes of moderate activity three to four times per week. Can’t squeeze in all 40 minutes at once? Break it up into two or three smaller workout sessions each day.

Consider a coach

After a heart attack, you might find yourself more easily motivated by a personal trainer or health coach who can help you stay focused on a healthy goal and guide your workout plan. Is it worth pursuing one? It depends, says Zipfel.

If your doctor opts to enroll you in cardiac rehab, your exercise routine will be supervised by an exercise physiologist, physical therapist or other medically-trained clinician.

However, if you do not need cardiac rehab, the choice is yours. If, ultimately, it helps motivate you to partner with a certified trainer or physical therapist, join a gym or sign up for a class, go for it!

“You’re going to have to pay for illness; you can choose to pay for health,” says Zipfel.

In choosing a trainer, though, be sure they’re medically certified, understand your health background and can adapt a fitness routine to fit your needs. The Main Line Health Fitness & Wellness Center at the Main Line Health Center in Concordville offers a cardiac wellness program specifically designed for patients with heart disease.

Know when it’s time to start

This is an important note for anyone, regardless of your heart health history. If at any point during your workout you start to experience any of the following symptoms, stop working out and call your doctor or for emergency medical help:

  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath

These are signs you might be pushing yourself and your body too hard. Before your next workout, ensure you’re medically cleared by your doctor.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.