Have you ever had a heart attack or have been told you have heart disease? Does your doctor still recommend getting regular physical activity, but you are worried about exercising with a heart condition? Getting enough physical activity is important for your overall health and is particularly important for heart health. However, many people who have had a heart attack or live with chronic pain are often hesitant or apprehensive when it comes to exercising. If this sounds like you, read on, as this article will give you essential tips on how to exercise safely after a heart attack or a diagnosis of heart disease.
Why is Exercise Important for the Heart?
When living with a heart condition (especially after having experienced a heart attack), it can be a real challenge to remain physically active. But physical activity is crucial–especially when you have heart disease. This is because exercising strengthens the heart muscle and helps it to recondition after a serious event. If you live with heart disease, physical activity–when performed safely–can improve the symptoms of angina (chest pain) or heart failure that you experience on a day-to-day basis.
Some people may have the desire to increase their level of physical activity–but they just don’t know how to take the first step. Sometimes, fearing that exercise will worsen symptoms, one may become even less active, which then starts the vicious cycle of pain where inactivity leads to deconditioning, which leads to more pain and fatigue, which then makes the thought of physical activity even more impossibly daunting!
If you happen to find yourself caught in this cycle, be encouraged! As you will see, breaking this cycle can be easily done once you have the right tools, some of which can be found in this guide.
The Many Benefits of Exercise
There is no question that physical activity benefits the mind and body. Here are just a few ways it does that.
◊ Heart Benefits of Exercise
- It strengthens your heart (especially aerobic exercise)
- It improves circulation and helps your body use oxygen more efficiently
- It can improve your angina as well as heart failure symptoms
- It improves your blood pressure and cholesterol
◊ Other Benefits of Exercise
- It improves chronic pain
- It improves blood sugar and diabetes
- It lowers your chance of injury (such as back strain and pulled muscles)
- It increases your energy level
- It improves your mood
- It improves your overall quality of life
3 Steps to Exercising Safely After a Heart Attack
The key to becoming more active when you have a heart condition or after a serious event is to plan ahead and know what to expect. The following steps will help you exercise safely and effectively.
Pick an Activity
- Aerobic activities are very beneficial for the heart. Walking (anywhere…in the house, the park, the mall), bike riding, swimming or water aerobics, elliptical machines, and Zumba classes are just some of your options.
- Choose something that you will enjoy and will look forward to doing.
- Don’t think you can do an aerobic activity? No worries! Start with seated exercises and go from there.
Decide on a Starting Point
- Still hesitant about exercising? Set your goal at 5 minutes a day of walking (total walking–which you can accomplish just by walking to the restroom a few times!). This may not seem like much, but it is still a good starting point to start building confidence for exercising after a heart attack or serious event.
- Go slowly. Plan to move at a pace that is comfortable for you. Do not challenge yourself too much at first (regardless of how motivated you feel) as this can lead to frustration or injury.
- Look into the future. The general recommended goal is to accumulate at least 30 minutes of total activity per day, 4-5 days of the week.
- Before Your Activity:
- Check that you have your nitroglycerin with you, just in case you need it.
- Have a loved one with you the first time you try something new, so they can cheer you on and assist as needed.
- During Your Activity:
- Spend 5 minutes warming up and cooling down before and after your activity.
- Stopping abruptly can lead to fast drops in blood pressure and make you feel dizzy or lightheaded.
- Knowing When to Slow Down or Stop:
- Shortness of breath that prevents you from completing a sentence
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Chest pain, tightness, or irregular heartrate
- Pain in your arms, shoulders, neck, or jaw
- Unusual or extreme fatigue
- Severe sweating, nausea, or vomiting
If you start experiencing these symptoms, stop and rest. Take a nitroglycerin if necessary.
If the symptoms do not improve or worsen after 10-15 minutes, seek medical attention.
Some Final Tips on Exercising Safely After a Heart Attack
- Don’t exercise outdoors when it is too cold, hot, or humid. High humidity tires you out more quickly. Extreme temperatures can interfere with circulation and make breathing difficult or cause chest pain. On these days, do an indoor activity (such as mall walking).
- Stay hydrated. Drink water even before you feel thirsty, especially on hot days. If you have heart failure and are on fluid restriction, take frequent small sips of water to stay hydrated without overdoing it.
- Skip extremely hot and cold showers or sauna baths after exercise. These extreme temperatures make your heart work harder.
- Avoid exercising in hilly areas. If you must walk in steep areas, slow down when going uphill to avoid working too hard.
- If your exercise program gets interrupted for a few days (due to illness, bad weather, etc), start at an easier point, and ease back into your routine.
- Write it down. Document your progress each day as well as any symptoms you experience, and acknowledge the progress that you make, knowing that the important thing is to take it one step at a time.
Now that you know how to start exercising safely, here’s to moving your way to heart health!
Want this information for handy reference?
Below is a printable PDF handout for your convenience.
*The information presented in “How to Exercise Safely After a Heart Attack” can be found in Being Empowered for a Healthy Heart: A personal guide to taking control of your health while living with chronic conditions, by Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH.