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Starting an Exercise Program After a Heart Attack 

Woman exercises in park using light weights for added resistance after a recent heart attack with recommendations for her cardiologist at Huntington Heart Center

A heart attack is one of the most frightening moments in a person’s life. It can remind us of our mortality and often paralyzes us into believing that we should reduce our activity to preserve the heart muscle. But let’s explore a heart attack and why not exercising may cause even more significant problems.

A heart attack occurs when oxygen-rich blood to the heart is limited by the partial or complete occlusion of the supplying artery. This happens due to plaque buildup within that artery, known as atherosclerosis. Like any other muscle in the body, when the blood flow is interrupted, the tissue supplied by that blood vessel begins to die. The longer the heart remains without its blood supply, the greater the damage. Fortunately, due to better public awareness of heart attacks and faster interventions, the number of people surviving a heart attack has increased over the years.

Just because the heart has been damaged does not mean it can no longer function. The heart is a very resilient organ, and physical activity (within its ability) is, in fact, a great way to keep it strong, potentially live longer, and certainly enjoy an improved lifestyle and quality of life.

After your heart attack, you will likely be referred to the equivalent of physical therapy for your heart – cardiac rehabilitation. This program, supervised by your cardiologist and other medical professionals, will get you on the path to returning to everyday life after the heart attack. Evidence shows that participating in a cardiac rehabilitation program and following its recommendations closely can reduce the incidence of subsequent fatal cardiovascular events by 30%. It is also a great jump start toward a longer-term improvement in heart health and recovery from a heart attack.

What Not to Do

  1. Don’t wait to start your exercise program unless your cardiologist has told you to do so. Instead, speak to your medical team and follow their advice even if you don’t feel up to it (we all have bad days after a heart attack). You will feel many sensations, some of which may be worrisome. Be sure to stay in touch with your cardiologist and follow the program.
  2. Please don’t overdo it. Once you do start exercising, it is easy to try and speed your recovery or strengthen your heart faster. However, overworking your heart, especially in this delicate early stage, can be problematic. Therefore, once again, follow your exercise protocols very closely.
  3. Don’t avoid strength training. Yes, cardio is so named because of its benefits to the heart, but that’s not the only exercise program you should pursue. Strength or resistance training – using body weight or free weights to build muscle is an excellent way to improve stamina and your long-term health. Of course, as with any other exercise, heavy lifting beyond the bounds of your ability or your doctor’s suggestion is not advised.
  4. Don’t go outside in the hottest part of the day. Now that we are in summer, it’s easy to get dehydrated and overheated. This is particularly problematic for your heart, especially after a heart attack. Take advantage of pleasant morning or evening temperatures to get your exercise in.

Your cardiologist will advise you on other exercises to perform. But use your best judgment, understanding that your heart needs exercise but is in a more fragile state, at least early in recovery.

Finally, be sure to address any symptoms of a cardiovascular emergency immediately. If you experience pain in your chest, arm, neck, or jaw, feel pressure, tightness, or heaviness in the chest, shortness of breath, or lightheadedness, call 911 immediately. If you experience other unusual symptoms that have not been explained to you by your cardiologist but don’t believe you’re having an emergency, please call our office urgently to get guidance.

Remember that your life is not over after a heart attack. There are many ways to ensure you live an enjoyable lifestyle even after this traumatic event. Just trust your cardiovascular team, follow guidance, and prioritize your health to maximize your fullness and enjoyment.