If you’ve had a heart attack or other cardiovascular event, your top concern might be how to prevent it from happening again.
Patients have the power to reclaim their health, and cardiac rehabilitation is an important step, says Michele Parr, director of cardiopulmonary rehabilitation at Tidelands Health.
Statistics show that patients who participate in the 12-week outpatient rehabilitation are 31 percent less likely to be readmitted to the hospital and about 45 percent less likely to die of any cause compared to people who didn’t go through cardiac rehabilitation, Parr says.
“That’s as good if not better than any medication you can take,” Parr says. “It’s a best practice for anyone who has been through any kind of cardiovascular event.”
The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology classify cardiac rehabilitation as a top priority, saying the benefits far outweigh any risk.
Doctors typically initiate a referral to rehabilitation, but some patients who are savvy to the benefits start the ball rolling themselves, says Parr, who’s been working in cardiac rehabilitation for more than 20 years.
Rehabilitation specialists explain the program, review the patient’s medical history and enroll patients for three classes per week for 12 weeks. In some lower-risk cases, patients attend only one or two times per week.
The group is typically between eight and 10 people, and the rehabilitation can serve as a support system among participants who get to know each other and discuss their experiences, Parr says.
Each patient’s heartbeat and vital signs are monitored while they work out to help ensure they reach the target heart rates established by their rehabilitation team. Cardiologists assign each patient an exercise program.
The hour-long workout can be as good for the soul as it is for the body; many heart patients are anxious and afraid to work out after having a heart attack, Parr says. The medically supervised group sessions can give them the confidence they need to return to the activities they enjoyed before their experience.
A dietitian also visits with patients once per week to review food intake and encourage healthy eating.
The program focuses on the reduction of sodium, fat and cholesterol while emphasizing fruits and vegetables, lean meats and complex carbs.
Cardiac rehabilitation is the ideal time to establish healthy eating habits that continue after the program ends. Subtle adjustments such as monitoring sodium intake or counting calories can become second nature.
A good rule of thumb is that anything cheap and convenient probably isn’t good, Parr says.
“You can have pretty much anything in moderation,” she says. “You just have to watch how much of it you eat.”
Goals are set at the beginning of rehabilitation. Each participant’s benchmarks are unique to the individual’s specific needs and health status at the start of rehabilitation, Parr says.
A cardiovascular event can be a huge incentive for people to change their lifestyles, whether that means quitting smoking, losing weight or eating healthy.
Those changes need to be permanent, and a good support system at home can help patients avoid slipping back into unhealthy patterns, Parr says.
Having a spouse who continues to smoke or eat unhealthy food, for example, can significantly reduce a patient’s success.
“A good support system can help reinforce positive habits and achieve goals,” she says. “And not only can patients benefit, but so can the people who make up that support system by incorporating those new, good habits into their own lives.”