(LifeWire) - If you are one of the more than 9.5 million patients annually who experience a myocardial infarction (heart attack) or angina (chest pain), or who have had heart surgery or angioplasty, a cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) program can be a literal lifesaver.
Most of these rehab programs include education, counseling, emotional support, nutritional education and an exercise program, all in a medically supervised and monitored environment. You'll interact with a variety of professionals, including doctors, nurses, nutritional counselors, psychologists or social workers, physical and occupational therapists and personal exercise trainers.
Research shows that these programs can improve your level of functioning (and therefore your quality of life), decrease your risk factors for heart disease and prevent your heart disease from getting worse. Some studies have shown that people who participate in cardiac rehab programs have less depression and anxiety than those who don't participate.
Counseling and Emotional Support
The counseling arm of cardiac rehab teaches you about the details of your condition and educates and helps you make lifestyle changes to improve your health -- for example, help in stopping smoking and using alcohol appropriately. Programs try to head off anxiety and depression by teaching methods to reduce stress and by providing emotional support. Some programs have peer support groups available because you can benefit from both receiving and offering support.
Nutritional education teaches you to adopt and maintain a healthy diet. Your nutritional counselor can help you determine appropriate calorie goals for reaching and maintaining a healthy weight and can help you learn to prepare enjoyable meals that are lower in fat, sodium and cholesterol for maximum heart benefit.
The starting level of your exercise program will be tailored to your specific situation. For example, if you are in the early stages of recuperating from surgery, initial exercises will simply involve helping you into a chair or assisting you while you take your first few steps after surgery. As your strength and stamina improve, the strenuousness of the exercise program will be increased gradually.
A personalized exercise program will be developed that can help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, lower your blood pressure, decrease plaque-causing LDL, increase heart-healthy HDL cholesterol, keep blood glucose levels stable, lower your anxiety level and improve your mood. You'll exercise in a very controlled environment, with medical personnel available to monitor your heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. If you experience chest pain or any other worrisome symptoms, you'll be able to get immediate help.
Just remember that the benefit you get out of a cardiac rehab program will depend on how much you put into it, so engage in activities that will help you make the most of the opportunity: make yourself a list of goals, think of the rehab personnel as your personal trainers, and envision rewards from actively participating in the rehab program.
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"What is Cardiac Rehabilitation?" Americanheart.org. Oct. 2007. American Heart Association. 3 Sep. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/downloadable/heart/119620120447745%20WhatIsCardiacRehab%209_07.pdf>.
"What is Cardiac Rehabilitation?" NIH.gov. Oct. 2007. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health. 3 Sep. 2008 <http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/rehab/rehab_whatis.html>.
Williams, M.A. et al. "Clinical Evidence for a Health Benefit from Cardiac Rehabilitation: An Update." American Heart Journal. 152:1 (2006): 835-41. <http://www.mdconsult.com/das/article/body/103831876-2/jorg=journal&source=&sp=N&sid=0/N/555052/1.html?issn=0002-8703#h0600453410>. (subscription)