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Categories > Heart Health > Cardiac rehabilitation

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Recovering after a heart attack

» In the beginning, rest

» When the time is right, get moving

» Eventually, resume your routine

» To avoid a second heart attack, change your habits

» If you smoke, quit

» Improve your diet

Getting a handle on stress

Stress is a hot topic in cardiac research, and rightly so. Recent studies show that defusing stress over the long term can improve and lengthen your life after a heart attack. If you have a short fuse, consider some of these coping strategies:

  • Recognize feelings of anger and frustration and identify which situations relieve or provoke these feelings.
  • Talk to close friends, a psychotherapist or fellow heart patients.
  • Regularly find quiet time alone and imagine a peaceful sunset or a mountaintop.
  • Avoid unreasonable deadlines—either self-imposed or external.
  • Consider enrolling in a stress-management program if tension gets out of hand.

If you’ve just suffered a heart attack, you might not feel particularly lucky these days. But if you’re reading this, make no mistake—you are.

By virtue of surviving a heart attack, you now have a new chance at life. And hard as it is to believe, you can return to an active, productive life. Take these steps, and that day will arrive sooner than you imagined.

In the beginning, rest

The first week or so after discharge from the hospital, you’ll need to recuperate. Divert yourself with games, movies, conversation or other low-key activities. Rely on friends and family for help with day-to-day chores and for emotional support. Try to resist feelings of depression. Instead, get dressed each day and avoid watching too much TV or isolating yourself.

Some other suggestions: Eat light meals and rest for one hour after eating. Also, avoid stressful situations, extreme weather or activities that cause chest pain or shortness of breath.

When the time is right, get moving

When your doctor says it’s okay, begin an exercise program. Exercise can help reverse heart disease, increase your stamina and decrease cardiac symptoms. Your cardiologist or exercise physiologist can help you determine a safe activity level.

According to research, heart attack survivors who participate in rehabilitation programs are 25 percent less likely to die during the next two years. These supervised programs combine education, walking or cycling and use of light weights or machines. And program participants report an improved sense of well-being along with improved fitness levels.

Eventually, resume your routine

After several weeks or months, you’ll be able to return to your usual daily activities. It’s important to start slowly and increase your workload gradually. Enlist the support of co-workers and let them know of any limitations you may have. Perhaps they can walk with you during breaks or join you in healthy lunches.

Finally, always take your medications as prescribed. See your doctor regularly and discuss any side effects or symptoms.

To avoid a second heart attack, change your habits

Chances are your heart attack was a wake-up call to make lifestyle changes. If that’s the case, you now face the most challenging part of cardiac rehabilitation—reversing some bad habits.

If you smoke, quit

You’ve heard it’s bad for you. But do you know why? Smoking has several serious effects on your cardiovascular system. First, it raises your heart rate and blood pressure. That, in turn, increases your heart’s demand for oxygen. But instead of getting more oxygen, the heart actually gets less, because carbon monoxide from the cigarettes replaces some of the oxygen in your blood. At the same time, blood vessels constrict when you smoke, making it even harder for your heart to get needed oxygen. Finally, cigarettes can cause irregular heart rhythms that may make your heart stop suddenly.

If you smoke, it may help to address the underlying reasons for your habit. Do you want to hold something in your hands? Fiddle with a pencil. Do you like having something in your mouth? Chew gum. Do you smoke out of boredom? Find something to do. Do you like to smoke after meals? Leave the table and change your routine. Do you smoke when you feel stressed? At parties? In the car? Pay attention to the situations that trigger your cigarette cravings and find creative ways to thwart them.

Improve your diet

Follow these general guidelines:

  • Eat more vegetables and fruit.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Avoid fatty, fried foods.
  • Limit yourself to two 3-ounce servings of lean meat, fish or poultry a day.
  • Switch to skim or 1 percent dairy products.
  • Limit yourself to one teaspoon of margarine or one tablespoon of salad dressing at a meal.
  • Avoid prepared items high in sodium.
  • Use seasonings, onions, garlic and herbs to flavor foods. Interestingly, research shows that most heart patients know what they should be eating to improve their health but have a hard time applying that knowledge.

If you’ve been struggling with nutrition, ask your doctor if it makes sense for you to talk with a registered dietitian who can analyze your eating habits and identify problem areas. He or she can design an eating plan based on your medical diagnoses, blood work and food preferences.

For example, a person with high blood pressure and normal cholesterol levels who drinks three martinis each evening probably would benefit more from cutting alcohol and sodium intake than from switching to skim milk.

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