Safe Exercise for Heart Patients

Should I Exercise?

Every person with heart disease should ask themselves this question. Why should I exercise, isn't this just adding to my risk of another heart attack? It's a good question. The answer is that, within safe guidelines, exercise may well prolong your life and improve its' quality.

Building Organ Reserve

Regular exercise builds what is called Organ Reserve - it's the opposite of Organ Failure. To build stronger organs with reserves of strength and the capability to endure stress over a period of time is such a benefit.

Heart patients who develop improved strength and endurance in their heart and lungs have a much better chance to both avoid or at least survive a future medical event. Patients who choose to remain sedentary will reduce what little cardiovascular fitness they currently have, risking organ failure before the ambulance reaches the hospital next time.

Exercise can benefit people with all kinds of chronic disease. Just because you've had a heart attack, a weak heart (congestive heart failure) or another heart disease, doesn't mean that you can't benefit. Exercising within safe guidelines may hasten your recovery, improve heart function and even get off of some of the medications you're on.

Cardiovascular benefits of exercise include:

  • Strengthening your heart and cardiovascular system

  • Improving your circulation and helping your body use oxygen better

  • Improving your heart failure symptoms

  • Lowering blood pressure

  • Improving cholesterol

"It's never too late to start an exercise program. Your body will always make positive adaptions to the healthy changes you make. "

Beyond the Physical Benefits

Most people who have heart disease have come face to face with their mortality. Some have had open heart surgery, others had stents inserted and those have a weakened. These moments have a profound effect on most people's self-esteem, confidence and sense of purpose. In my experience, exercise - like no other activity dramatically improves the mental health of people living with heart disease. It's not about the duration or the intensity, its all about the consistency and the sense of accomplishment.

The Medical Clearance

All people with chronic disease should consult with their doctor first before starting an exercise program. Your doctor can help you with guidelines for safe exercise according to your current circumstances.

Here are some discussion questions:

  • How much exercise can I do in one session?

  • How often can I exercise each week?

  • What type of exercise should I do?

  • What type of activities should I avoid?

  • Should I take my medication(s) at a certain time around my exercise schedule?

  • Do I have to take my pulse while exercising?

  • Is there a maximum heart rate for me?

Your doctor may decide to ask you to undertake a stress test or an echocardiogram to ensure that it is safe or you to exercise. If they do, this test will give you a clear answer about what exercise is appropriate for you.

Step Two: Exercise Guidelines for Heart Patients

  • Avoid too much isometric exercises such as pushups and sit-ups. Isometric exercises involve straining muscles against other muscles or an immovable object.

  • Don't exercise outdoors when it is too cold, hot or humid without checking with your doctor first. High humidity may cause you to tire more quickly. Extreme temperatures can interfere with circulation, make breathing difficult and cause chest pain. Better choices are indoor activities such as mall walking or a treadmill.

  • Make sure you stay hydrated – within reason. It is important to drink water even before you feel thirsty, especially on hot days. But, be careful not to drink too much water. Check with your doctor first!

  • If your exercise program has been interrupted for more than a few days (for example, due to illness, vacation or bad weather), make sure you ease back into the routine. Start with a reduced level of activity, and gradually increase it until you are back where you started.

Mike Lynch

Lifestyle & Wellness Coach