Exercising is an important part of improving your heart health following a heart attack. Not only do you need to strengthen your heart muscles, but physical activity can also help prevent another cardiac episode. If you are unsure of when you should start an exercise routine, or which types of physical activity you can do post-heart attack, here are some tips and suggestions provided by Sam Aznaurov, MD, FACC, electrophysiologist and cardiac specialist with Aurora Denver Cardiology Associates at The Medical Center of Aurora.
- Talk to your doctor before starting any exercise routine
Anyone who has suffered a heart attack must talk to their doctor before beginning any type of exercise. Your doctor may recommend cardiac rehab, which is a three-month program designed for those recovering from a heart attack, or for people dealing with a heart condition.
“Patients who have had a heart attack, or have coronary artery disease, are strong candidates for cardiac rehab,” says Dr. Auznaurov. “Cardiac rehab isn’t just an exercise routine. It’s a full-scale program to help you improve your heart health and quality of life, develop healthy habits, and reduce your risk of having another heart attack.”
During a three-month cardiac rehabilitation program (which typically consists of 36 sessions), patients set specific fitness goals, learn how to change their eating habits, talk to a counselor or therapist about their mental health, and work with a doctor to monitor their blood pressure, cholesterol and heart rate.
- Give yourself time to get back to your regular activities
It can take weeks or months to get back to the level of activity you were used to before your heart attack. Typically, it’s recommended that those recovering from a heart attack ease back into an exercise routine with low-impact activities, like walking, cycling, cross-country skiing or water aerobics.
When exercising, cardiac patients should wear a heart monitor, to make sure that they stay under 70 to 75 percent of their maximum heart rate. A stress test administered by a doctor can tell you what your maximum heart rate might be.
- Go slow when adding aerobic exercise to your workout
Moderate exercise can help restore normal heart function and reduce your cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure. Staying active can also lift your mood, as many who suffer a heart attack may experience stress, anxiety or depression in the aftermath. Start slow by gradually adding aerobic or cardio segments to your workout routine.
- Engage in strength training — but avoid heavy lifting
In addition to aerobic exercise, strength and resistance training can help prevent injury. Strength training can include lifting free weights, body weight exercises or resistance-based fitness classes. While it’s good to do some strength or resistance training, avoid heavy lifting.
“It’s not good for the heart,” says Dr. Aznaurov. “There’s a greater risk of injury with heavy lifting. Resistance training, on the other hand, means mild to moderate exercises designed to maintain muscle definition.”
As with any type of exercise, consult your doctor before adding strength training to your workouts, especially after suffering a heart attack.
- Learn the warning signs of cardiac arrest when working out
Whether you’ve experienced a heart attack or not, it’s important to know the signs of cardiac arrest while exercising. Not everyone shows the same symptoms when having a heart attack, or symptoms might not be as noticeable, depending on the person.
If you witness one or more of these signs when exercising, stop and seek medical attention immediately:
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Pain or discomfort in jaw, arms, back, neck or stomach
- Nausea and vomiting
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
“If you’re working out and start having symptoms similar to those you had during your heart attack, that’s a warning sign,” says Dr. Aznaurov. “Even if the symptoms aren’t as bad, call your doctor right away.”
- Participate in activities that also benefit your mental health
Activities like yoga, meditation and deep breathing can be very beneficial for those recovering from a heart attack. Yoga can increase your flexibility, build strength, reduce stress and aid in easing depression. Yoga can also help you sleep better. Meditation and deep breathing exercises aid in relaxation, concentration, focus and eliminating chronic stress.
“These activities have both a physical and psychological effect,” says Dr. Aznaurov. “Things like yoga and meditation can also help you deal with the stress of a cardiac event.”
While yoga is generally safe for cardiac patients, be very careful about practicing hot yoga. After a heart attack, patients might become more sensitive to heat. Certain heart medications can exacerbate a person’s response to heat as well. If you are exercising outdoors, know that engaging in strenuous activities in hot weather causes the heart to work harder, which is not good for your heart following a heart attack.
For those who have suffered a heart attack, the number one rule about exercising is simple: consult your doctor first. Don’t participate in any activity that is not approved by your physician, like hot yoga. Stay within your limits and be patient. Remember that you are working towards living a heart-healthy lifestyle for many years to come, not burning a lot of calories during a single workout. Also, don’t forget to rest — your heart needs exercise, but it also needs to take a breather, literally, as you recover from a cardiac event.