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Starting an Exercise Program after a Heart Attack

Heart attacks are life-changing, not only physically, but mentally as well. When someone has a heart attack, they feel more vulnerable in every way, physically and psychologically. They may believe that their heart is weak, and they tend to withdraw from activity to try to keep their heart “protected.”

However, the opposite is true. To be sure, a heart attack does create structural problems which can weaken it, but we must remember what actually causes heart attacks in the first place. Heart attacks are primarily caused by ischemic heart disease which involves a buildup of plaque in the arteries. When the plaque breaks open, a blood clot may form within the artery. If the blood clot becomes large enough, and blood flow is reduced significantly enough, the heart is deprived of oxygen and the musculature in the area being deprived can die.

Knowing the cause of the heart attack can help us understand that exercise which mildly and temporarily elevates the heart rate, can be very beneficial and most definitely not detrimental in the weeks, months and years after a heart attack. When the muscle in the heart dies, it is often replaced by scar tissue which reduces function. We want to build it back up as much as possible, despite the damage. Exercise is the way to do so.

Why does it feel so difficult to exercise after a heart attack?

You will be asked to exercise almost immediately after being treated for your heart attack. This exercise will foremost help mitigate any infection or blood clots that may form as a result of the procedure you have undergone. But exercise also improves recovery and long-term heart health. However, it will feel difficult, seemingly impossible, to do any kind of significant exercise. This is because your heart is recovering from a serious event that has caused muscle tissue to die. The heart muscle is like any other in our body – when you don’t use it or when it has been damaged, it takes longer to recover.

How long after a heart attack can you exercise?

In the days and weeks after your procedure, we will strongly suggest that you participate in a cardiac rehab program. This is a clinician led therapy, specifically for your heart. Those who participate in a cardiac rehabilitation program have significantly better results than those who exercise at home by themselves. However, this does not mean that you shouldn’t exercise at home as well, quite the opposite. We want you to walk daily. Start with a 3 to 5 minute warm-up. Then continue with about 10 minutes of moderate walking. You should be able to speak normally, but you should also feel an elevated heart rate and a little bit of strain. You will then want to have another 3 to 5 minutes of cooling down at the end of your walk. Every day or two, add a couple minutes to your walking regimen until you can walk for about 30 minutes a day. This is an excellent way to get your daily exercise and start a larger lifestyle change.

Can you run or lift weights after a heart attack?

In consultation with your cardiologist, you may be able to start more vigorous activities at some point in the future. Stationary biking, swimming running and other activities that can be performed at various intensities can often be started within a few months after the heart attack. Lifting weights is also beneficial to long-term weight loss and heart strengthening, but do so only with the approval and guidance of your cardiologist.

You should always be mindful of how you feel while exercising. Pain, excessive shortness of breath and other warning signs that you will find in your post heart attack instructions must be looked for. You may also wish to perform your activities alongside someone else in case of a problem or emergency.

Remember that no lifestyle change is complete without changing your diet as well. Exercise offers a great pathway to losing weight, and improving heart function, but it will not be as effective without dietary changes. Indeed, poor diet is one of the most significant causes of diseases leading to a heart attack, so patients must change their dietary habits immediately following their heart attack.

Of course, if you have any questions about your post heart attack lifestyle, we encourage you to speak to our office. There are no dumb or unimportant questions when it comes to your heart’s health.

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