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Changing Lifestyles, Changing Habits: What to Expect from "Cardiac Rehab"

separator You often hear the term "cardiac rehabilitation," or "rehab," but what exactly is involved? How does it help you? What can you expect of a cardiac rehab program?

According to the American Heart Association, cardiac rehab is for patients who have had just about any type of heart condition or procedure: congestive heart failure, angina, heart attack, coronary artery bypass surgery, balloon angioplasty or a pacemaker. An effective program improves a heart patient's everyday functioning and quality of life. It reduces risk factors by teaching patients how to manage their conditions. And it often helps give patients a hopeful and more confident feeling about their future.

The main components of cardiac rehab include
  • Exercise
  • Education
  • Support
Each of these three elements complements the other. Take exercise, for example. Without understanding why exercise is important you might be less likely to do it regularly. And without the emotional support from staff members and even from other patients in your program, it might be harder to keep yourself motivated.

Patients in cardiac rehab get detailed information about the following types of topics:
  • Managing high blood pressure (hypertension) and high blood cholesterol
  • Information about the harmful effects of smoking and advice about quitting
  • Information about healthy eating
  • Information about why exercise is important
  • Handling the emotional issues of having a heart condition
  • Advice about getting back to work
Most cardiac rehab programs present information in a variety of ways. Formal lectures, from experts, classes and group discussions are common.

In a cardiac rehab program, exercise is tailored to the patient's specific heart condition. Some patients may need to be monitored with an electrocardiogram, for example, while others may not have that kind of requirement.

Exercise often takes place in group settings, where you can learn to become familiar with equipment such as stationary bikes and treadmills. When you're ready to leave rehab, staff members typically give you detailed advice about exercising on your own.

The staff in a cardiac rehab program are trained to offer patients emotional support when it's needed. They should be able to offer suggestions to patients who sometimes feel like they're losing hope. If you have any physical limitations, the staff can offer suggestions about managing these.

A cardiologist or similar specialist should supervise the program and a nurse should be available at all times. Exercise instructors should have a college degree in physical fitness or a related field and they should be trained in cardiac rehab.

The most important thing is to keep up the good habits after you leave rehab. It's easier to exercise, eat well and make other changes when you're part of a group. That's why some people continue to meet with other members of their cardiac rehab program even they're back at work and feeling confident and knowledgeable. They support each other in terms of staying with a healthy eating plan, exercising regularly and simply talking about what it's like to live with a heart condition.

The American Heart Association; F. Pashkow and C. Libov. The Women's Heart Book. Hyperion, New York, New York, 10023, 2001.
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