Why exercise is essential for heart attack recovery

A heart attack brings drastic changes to your life. Here’s how valuable exercise is in your recovery and future health.

07 May 2015
by Carla Calitz

A heart attack is undoubtedly a life-changing event – but it doesn’t mean you can’t live a full and healthy life afterwards, as many people recover completely after it. In fact, it gives you the opportunity to start taking responsibility for making necessary changes to your lifestyle to keep your body strong and healthy for your future.

Exercise is a vital part of your recovery, says Gabriel Eksteen, a dietitian and exercise physiologist at the Heart and Stroke Foundation of South Africa. “Exercise not only keeps you fit and your weight in check but it’s good for your heart,” he explains. “It keeps the heart muscle fit and contracting strongly, it lowers blood pressure, and it helps to manage stress levels. People who exercise in the years after a heart attack actually live longer!”

When and how should you start exercising?

When and how you can exercise after a heart attack or heart surgery will depend on how damaged your heart is. Your doctor will prescribe the correct medications and advise you on lifestyle changes specific to you. This is not the same for everyone, explains Eksteen. “Often your doctor will ask you to take it easy in the weeks after the heart attack. Then you can gradually start reintroducing activity into your life and soon you should be able to do as much exercise as you did before your heart attack."

“Many hospitals also offer cardiac rehabilitation programmes to guide you through the process and give you an opportunity to exercise under guidance,” he says. If you’ve never exercised, now is undoubtedly the time to start.

The more, the better

What’s interesting is that tackling more exercise than what you used to do before your heart attack is actually recommended by doctors. “The recommendations for the general population are still appropriate to you too: that is, 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week, or a total of 150 minutes over the week in shorter or longer sessions. This is the minimum though, people who need to lose weight may need to increase the amount even further,” says Eksteen.

Cardio is the trick

Moderate exercise is activity that gets the heart pumping a little faster and increases the breathing rate. As a general guide this means you can still speak while exercising, but you aren’t able to sing. “Although weight training or resistance exercise also has clear benefits, tackling aerobic exercise to improve your fitness is more important,” advises Eksteen.

However, always ensure you speak to your doctor before you make big changes in your exercise regime, especially when you’re increasing the intensity or duration of exercise significantly. Properly warming up, stretching and cooling down are all good habits and help to give your heart some time to adjust to exercise sessions.

“Exercise after a heart attack should never be ‘hard’ though, and if you experience chest pain or other symptoms of heart disease, you should stop the activity that you’re doing. Symptoms to watch for could include dizziness, unusual shortness of breath, feeling extremely tired or a very fast or uneven heartbeat,” cautions Eksteen.

When can you have sex after a heart attack?

This is a question that patients don’t want to ask and doctors often don’t want to mention. “In a recent American study, most conversations about sex were, in fact, initiated by the heart attack sufferers and not the cardiologist,” says Eksteen. “But don’t be scared or feel embarrassed – ask! Often people who have suffered heart attacks postpone sexual activity unnecessarily.”

Always keep in mind that your sexual health is an integral part of your overall health, and you will need guidance at this time. “In general, similar to exercise, sexual activity may need to be postponed until the heart function has stabilised. Thereafter, the intensity of recommended sexual activity may differ from person to person, and your doctor needs to advise you on this,” says Eksteen.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

Read More: Heart Disease Super Section