Having a heart attack or other serious cardiac event may seem like the end of an active life. Years ago, people with heart problems were advised to rest for a long time, and lived in fear of the next attack. But today, heart patients are frequently referred by their physicians to cardiac rehabilitation, where they find the care and support to gain a whole new lease on life.
Like every other muscle in our bodies, the heart becomes stronger and more efficient as a result of exercise. Under the careful supervision of highly trained medical professionals, cardiac rehab patients are monitored throughout a gradual program that strengthens their hearts and provides many other health benefits. The educational component of cardiac rehab helps patients understand heart health, while behavior modification support enables them to overcome lifestyle choices that may have played a role in their heart disease.
I remember a patient who first appeared at cardiac rehab with a walker, who was so deconditioned and out of breath that he had to rest at several stops along the way to our program. His first few sessions took place while he was seated, where he could only perform easy arm exercises. In time, he progressed gradually to the treadmill. Today, he spends 30 minutes on the treadmill three times a week. His breathing has improved dramatically, and his stamina is great. He enjoys a much better quality of life, and is determined to keep at it.
This is the magic and blessing of cardiac rehabilitation. Our patients range from their early 30s to late 80s. Some had cardiac problems because of poor lifestyle choices. Others have led very healthy lives, yet still had a heart attack. All are welcomed to a judgment-free zone where rehab professionals are determined to help them regain their best heart health possible. Studies show that cardiac rehab reduces the risk of death in the first few years following a heart attack or cardiac procedure by 25 percent.
Cardiac rehabilitation centers are directed by cardiologists and staffed by registered nurses who are certified in advanced life support. Other members of the team include exercise specialists, dieticians, and respiratory therapists. We take an individualized approach to each person, with the goal of working collaboratively with the patient and his/her physician to design a program that will ultimately improve their hearts and return them to an active and healthy life. In the process of cardiac rehabilitation, patients often find that their blood pressure and cholesterol levels improve, and that their overall health is enhanced.
Cardiac rehab centers look a lot like a gym, with walking treadmills, stationary bikes, arm cycles, and rowing machines. Typically, a referral to cardiac rehab includes an hour of exercise three days a week for eight to 12 weeks. Everyone is assessed before they begin each day, and are monitored throughout their exercise. Cardiac rehab is a safe place for people who may be fearful about becoming active again. Many patients decide to continue with a maintenance program for several weeks more — also under the supervision of the rehab staff — to ensure that their good health continues and that exercise becomes an ingrained habit for continued good health.
Along the way, patients in cardiac rehab often become a tight-knit community of people who are committed to recovery. They share in each other's lives and create relationships that go on long after rehab is over. And because we see our patients three times a week for several months, we become a part of the community as well, taking great joy in helping each one live a longer, healthier and better quality of life.
Kelley Weider, RN, is Director of Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation at Berkshire Medical Center