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Cardiac rehabilitation: Building a better life after heart disease

Cardiac rehabilitation is a medically supervised program to help you recover after a heart attack, from other forms of heart disease or after surgery to treat heart disease. Cardiac rehabilitation is often divided into phases that involve various levels of monitored exercise, nutritional counseling, emotional support, and support and education about lifestyle changes to reduce your risks of heart problems.

Cardiac rehabilitation often begins while you're still in the hospital and continues through monitored programs in an outpatient setting until home-based maintenance programs can be safely followed.

What is cardiac rehabilitation?

Cardiac rehabilitation — also called cardiac rehab — is a customized program of exercise and education. Cardiac rehabilitation programs significantly increase your chances of survival. Both the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology recommend cardiac rehab programs.

The goals of cardiac rehabilitation are to help you regain strength, to prevent your condition from worsening and to reduce your risk of future heart problems. These goals can add up to a better quality of life.

Cardiac rehabilitation has four main parts:

Cardiac rehabilitation helps you rebuild your life, both physically and emotionally. As you get stronger and learn how to manage your condition, you'll likely return to a normal routine and enjoy life more. It's important to know that your chances of having a successful cardiac rehab program rest largely with you; the more dedicated you are to following your program's recommendations, the better you'll do.

Who can benefit from cardiac rehabilitation?

In years past, cardiac rehabilitation was often suggested only for people who were younger and needed help getting in shape to return to work after a heart attack or surgery. It was thought too risky or of too little benefit for anyone else.

Today, though, with improved programs and close medical monitoring, cardiac rehabilitation is an option for people of all ages and with many forms of heart disease.

In particular, you may benefit from cardiac rehabilitation if your medical history includes:

Cardiac rehabilitation isn't appropriate for everyone, though, even if you have one of these conditions. Your health care team will thoroughly evaluate your health to make sure you're ready to start a cardiac rehabilitation program.

Don't let advancing age hold you back from joining a cardiac rehabilitation program. Even if you're older than 65, you're just as likely to benefit from cardiac rehabilitation as your younger counterparts are. In fact, because older adults with heart disease often are less able to exercise and have a higher disability rate, they may benefit the most from a cardiac rehabilitation program.

What will you do during cardiac rehabilitation?

A cardiac rehabilitation program is tailored to your individual needs and health condition. You may have friends or relatives whose cardiac rehabilitation is different from yours.

Your cardiac rehabilitation team will set up a program for you based on your specific health situation and goals. Most cardiac rehabilitation programs last about three to six months. During that time, you may work with cardiologists, nurse educators, dietitians, exercise rehabilitation specialists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists.

Here's what to expect, in general, during the three basic phases of cardiac rehabilitation:

What will you get out of cardiac rehabilitation in the long run?

Although it may be difficult to start a cardiac rehabilitation program when you're not feeling well, you'll benefit in the long run. Cardiac rehabilitation can guide you through fear and anxiety as you return to an active lifestyle, with more motivation and energy to do the things you enjoy.

Over the long term, you gain strength, learn heart-healthy behaviors, improve your diet, cut bad habits such as smoking, and learn how to cope with heart disease.

If you've had a heart attack or heart surgery, or if you have another heart condition, ask your doctor about joining a cardiac rehabilitation program. Although studies show they can improve your quality of life and help you live longer, many people aren't even aware of cardiac rehabilitation programs. Insurance and Medicare often cover the costs of cardiac rehabilitation.

One of the most valuable benefits of cardiac rehabilitation is often an improvement in your overall quality of life. If you stick with your cardiac rehab program, you're likely to come out of your cardiac rehabilitation program feeling better than before.