After experiencing a heart attack, exercise is probably the last thing you’re thinking about. Many people assume, nervously, that they need to keep physical exertion to a minimum. That’s true, to some extent. Recovery is typically the primary focus for heart attack victims. However, working out post-heart attack under the care of a doctor within a cardiac rehabilitation program is actually really important. It reduces your chances of additional heart problems down the road and can support a faster and safer recovery. Here’s what you need to know about working out after a heart attack.
What does recovery from a heart attack often look like?
Heart attacks are major, life-threatening events. Survivors of cardiac arrest are considered lucky. You may feel better sooner than expected, but you’ll want to avoid pushing yourself too hard, too soon. Instead, focus on proper treatment. It may include a cardiac rehabilitation program, and prepare yourself for a long road to full recovery.
“After a major cardiac event, especially if procedures or surgery are required, the recovery can be an arduous one,” explains Dr. C. Nicole Swiner, partner at Durham Family Medicine and adjunct associate professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. “It may involve cardiac rehabilitation programs, physical therapy, or occupational therapy. There will [be] exercises and medications to help a patient’s arteries have—and keep—adequate blood flow and circulation. The key is to prevent another heart attack or arterial event.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 735,000 people have heart attacks every year in the U.S. And about a third of those are individuals who’ve previously had a heart attack. But a 2005 statement from the American Heart Association states that physical activity does benefit heart attack survivors. It can even help prevent a second attack. That’s why cardiac rehab sessions can be so helpful.
In cardiac rehab, nurses or exercise physiologists monitor patients while they perform lower-intensity activities, like walking on a treadmill or lifting light weights. Since everyone recovers at a different pace, your exact rehab program will vary. It can depend on your level of activity prior to the incident and the amount of damage done to your heart muscle. The goal is to provide one-on-one support and monitoring as you return to a modified level of exercise.
How quickly can you return to exercising after recovering from a heart attack?
Dr. Swiner says that it depends on each patient and their particular case. A condition called angina with minimal artery blockage, for example, is different than quadruple bypass artery surgery. In general, though, you can return after about six weeks.
Be sure to check in with your doctor about what choice of exercise is best for you. But gentle walking is a safe place to start. Also, get a doctor’s approval before returning to yoga. Even though it seems low-impact enough to be safe, forms like hot yoga can put extra strain on your heart.
And, if you’re approaching exercise as a beginner, just know that’s okay, too. Working out, even after a heart attack, can help you lose weight, reduce stress, and lower your blood pressure, among other benefits, like better balance and flexibility. Aim for at least 40 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, three or four days per week.
If you’re working out after a heart attack, what warning signs should you keep in mind going forward?
You may worry about feeling short of breath or overdoing it. If you gradually increase workout intensity over time, being slightly out of breath after a good workout is considered a normal sign of regular exercise. But, there are red flags to watch for.
“Significant shortness of breath with minimal activity, chest pain or pressure, immense sweating (more than normal), and nausea or vomiting [are] all symptoms that need to be reported to your doctor or medical professional, urgently,” notes Dr. Swiner.