Heart disease is the number one cause of death in both men and women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in every four deaths in the U.S. is the result of heart disease.
The good news is that heart disease is preventable. Even for people who have suffered a heart attack, there are preventative steps you can take to improve your health. Cardiac rehabilitation — also called cardiac rehab — refers to a customized medical plan to help someone deal with a heart issue or recover from a heart attack.
Cardiac rehab can help prevent your heart issue from getting worse, or lower your odds of having more health complications in the future. Cardiac rehab is designed to improve your physical and mental health, as well as help you establish good habits for heart health long-term.
"Heart patients who undergo cardiac rehab have a reduced risk of heart failure and heart attacks, and a lesser chance of readmission to the hospital for heart issues,” says Dr. Reynaria Pitts, a cardiologist at Aurora Denver Cardiology Associates at North Suburban Medical Center.
Why someone should consider cardiac rehab
Cardiac rehab can be beneficial for many people who have a variety of heart issues, including:
- Someone who has suffered a heart attack
- People with heart conditions, such as heart failure, angina, cardiomyopathy, coronary artery disease (CAD), and some congenital heart diseases
- Patients who have undergone certain heart procedures, such as angioplasty, valve repair or replacement, coronary artery bypass grafting, stenting, pacemaker or cardioverter defibrillator implantation
- A person who has undergone a heart or lung transplant
Usually, someone will start cardiac rehab following a referral from their doctor. Women tend to get referred to these cardiac rehab programs less often. Older populations, like senior citizens, also don’t enter into cardiac rehab programs as frequently as middle-aged or younger people.
Starting cardiac rehab
Typically, someone participates in a cardiac rehab program every two or three days for three months, so 36 sessions in total. Research has shown that those who attend all 36 sessions cut their risk of death from cardiovascular disease in half.
“This is why it’s important to complete the entire program, and not just go for one session or a couple of weeks,” says Dr. Pitts. “Doing the full program can have a big impact on a patient’s heart health in the long run.”
Before the program begins, your heart doctor will evaluate your medical history, administer a physical exam and might also do some tests, like an electrocardiogram (EKG). Your cardiac rehab team doesn’t just include your doctor — it also includes physical therapists, occupational therapists, counselors, exercise specialists, nutritionists or dietitians. Medicare and many other insurance companies cover a three-month cardiac rehab program.
Key elements of a well-designed cardiac rehab program
After the initial intake, the cardiac rehab team will work together to create a rehabilitation program designed specifically for each patient. This plan should include three key elements: exercise, lifestyle education and emotional support.
- Exercise — Physical activity is crucial to strengthening your heart muscle and improving your overall health. Your exercise routine will be tailored to your physical ability and should include aerobic (cardio) exercises, strength training, stretching, and have both a warm-up and cool-down. As you progress, your team will encourage you to increase the intensity of your workouts, which bolsters your heart health.
- Education — Your cardiac team will be heavily involved in teaching you how to live a healthy-heart lifestyle. This includes quitting smoking and developing better eating habits. Your doctor will also help keep you in check by monitoring things like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are both risk factors for heart disease.
- Emotional Support — In some cases, when someone has a heart attack or undergoes major heart surgery, they are at an increased risk for anxiety and depression. Mental health services are often a part of cardiac rehab programs. Your team can help you find ways to cope with your emotions, identify any emotional triggers and work on improving your overall mental state.
Benefits of completing a cardiac rehab program
Following a successful cardiac rehab program, the vast majority of patients see an improvement in their overall health, both physically and mentally. A cardiac rehab program is designed to help people recover from a heart attack, manage their heart issues and reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease or future heart complications. After finishing a cardiac rehab program, many people might also experience:
- Fewer chest pains or become less reliant on certain medications
- Ability to stop unhealthy habits, like eating junk food or smoking
- Weight loss or getting in better physical shape
- Increased energy and motivation
- Better at managing and reducing stress
- Increased mobility, like the ability to climb stairs without huffing and puffing
Continuing your healthy heart habits after cardiac rehab
One of the main goals of a cardiac rehabilitation program is to strengthen your heart. Studies have shown that in patients who finish a cardiac rehab program after a heart attack, their chances of dying within five years decreases by up to 30 percent.
“After a heart attack, your health — and your life — are at stake,” says Dr. Pitts. “Patients who stick with this program and develop these healthy heart habits can see significant health benefits, which also improve their quality of life.”
You can practice much of what you learn during a cardiac rehab session at home and the program is designed to fit your lifestyle. When it comes to your heart health, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor about preventing cardiovascular disease or enrolling in a cardiac rehabilitation program.