The Benefits of Cardiac Rehab Programs

Getting your health back after a heart attack

stress test
Stress Test. Andrew Olney/Getty Images

After you have a myocardial infarction (heart attack), participation in a cardiac rehabilitation program can reduce your risk of having another heart attack, and even of dying. Anyone who has survived a heart attack should ask their doctor to refer them to a cardiac rehabilitation program.

The purpose of a cardiac rehabilitation programs is to help you develop a heart-friendly lifestyle.

Ideally, it will consist of three components: exercise, risk factor modification, and dealing with stress and depression.

Exercise Rehabilitation

Exercise may be the most important component of a cardiac rehabilitation program, because regular exercise not only directly improves your cardiovascular system, but it also helps you with weight control, improves your response to stress, and helps you stick to your heart-healthy diet.

The benefits of regular exercise after a heart attack are well documented in clinical studies. Those who participate in exercise rehabilitation achieve a significantly lower risk of mortality, and of having recurrent heart attacks.

While almost everyone can safely engage in exercise after a heart attack, deciding on how best to begin an exercise program needs to be individualized. Among the factors that need to be taken into account are your general physical condition, the amount of damage your heart has sustained from the heart attack, whether you are having angina, your weight, and the condition of your limbs and joints.

Performing a stress test helps the exercise rehabilitation clinician assess all of these factors, and is normally an important part of creating an appropriate "exercise prescription" for you.

Once he or she has completed your initial assessment, your rehab clinician will work with you (and your doctor) to prescribe a safe exercise program.

This prescription will include the appropriate type of exercise (walking, jogging, swimming, etc.), as well as the duration, frequency and the intensity of exercise that will safely improve your heart health. Obviously, your exercise prescription will take into account your personal preferences, and your personal constraints.

After a heart attack, your first several exercise sessions will be conducted under medical supervision, possibly including cardiac monitoring. But after a few weeks, as your heart heals and your exercise capacity increases, you will begin following a home-based exercise program that, ideally, will last forever.

Lifestyle "Rehabilitation"

Most cardiac rehabilitation programs today include extensive educational sessions on modifying your cardiac risk factors, such as weight control, smoking cessation, and diet. It is important for you to attend these sessions and absorb as much information as you can. Now that you have survived your heart attack, your health depends on taking control of those aspects of your life that can be controlled, and that will go a long way toward determining your long-term outcome.

Psychosocial "Rehabilitation"

It is quite common to go through a period of depression or anxiety after a heart attack. Unfortunately, these problems can not only keep you from engaging in the exercise rehabilitation and lifestyle modifications you need to become healthy, but can also directly worsen your cardiac health. The way you handle the daily stresses of life can also impact your health.

Many cardiac rehabilitation programs employ individuals who are trained to recognize and help you work through the psychosocial issues that may inhibit your recovery, and to help you manage stress. If you need more intensive therapy, they can help make the appropriate referrals for you.


While a heart attack is never a good thing, with a little luck and the right attitude, you can turn it into something far less bad than you might think. A cardiac rehabilitation program is very important in achieving this end. By helping you make the changes in your life that you need to make, a good rehabilitation program can help you achieve a level of health that may even be better than it was before your heart attack.


Balady GJ, Ades PA, Bittner VA, et al. Referral, enrollment, and delivery of cardiac rehabilitation/secondary prevention programs at clinical centers and beyond: a presidential advisory from the American Heart Association. Circulation 2011; 124:2951.

Smith SC Jr, Benjamin EJ, Bonow RO, et al. AHA/ACCF Secondary Prevention and Risk Reduction Therapy for Patients with Coronary and other Atherosclerotic Vascular Disease: 2011 update: a guideline from the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology Foundation. Circulation 2011; 124:2458.

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