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Exercise for Heart Attack Survivors

Having a heart attack is often a wake-up call to make over your habits, and even adopt new ones. The No. 1 habit you need to put on your to-do list: Exercise.

Your doctor has probably already mentioned it. And you know that exercise is good for your whole body and will make your heart (which is a muscle, after all) stronger.

There are other benefits, like lowering inflammation and helping your body better use insulin, which controls your blood sugar.

Having had a heart attack, you're going to need some help to get started. So your doctor will typically prescribe cardiac rehab.

What Is Cardiac Rehab?

Cardiac rehab is an exercise program supervised by cardiologists, exercise physiologists, and nurses. It is customized to your particular health and fitness status and teaches you exactly what you need to do to work out safely.

Most cardiac rehab programs last about 3 months. You typically go three times a week for an hour.

People who finish cardiac rehab are 20% to 25% less likely to have another heart attack or die of a heart-related cause, says Oregon cardiologist James Beckerman, MD.

What to Expect

When prescribed by a doctor, cardiac rehab programs are usually covered by insurance.

Although specific activity plans will vary from one person to another, most cardiac rehab programs will encourage you to do a mix of aerobic exercise, strength training, and stretching.

Many cardiac rehab programs also include nutritional counseling, social support, and psychological counseling.

“We’re teaching you everything you need to do once you graduate from the program,” Beckerman says.

After you complete the program, you’ll have a specific exercise prescription you can continue at home. You and your doctor should keep track of your progress at your regular checkups.

You can also ask about a follow-up program for after cardiac rehab. Many hospitals, Y’s and other facilities offer it, says cardiologist Merle Myerson, MD. She directs the Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention in New York.

Those follow-up programs typically involve:

Aerobic exercise (such as 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise 5 days a week, or 25 minutes of hard exercise 3 days a week)
Strength training at least twice a week
Flexibility work, as often as you want it
The cardiac rehab center can help direct you to follow-up programs in the community. But even if you choose not to enroll in a community-based program after cardiac rehab, the important thing is to keep moving. Regular exercise is a key part of keeping your heart healthy.

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