A heart attack doesn’t just affect your body. It changes the way you think. Heart attack survivors are usually determined to get their lives back on track, but when it comes to exercise, they often don’t know where to begin.
“After a heart attack, even the best of athletes is scared, traumatized, nervous and doesn’t know how to get themselves reconditioned,” says Melissa Tracy, associate professor of cardiology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois.
Tracy provided the following tips to help give men and women the confidence to lace up their running shoes following a heart attack.
1. Enroll in a cardiac rehab program
This is something you should do before you even thinking about running, regardless of your pre-heart attack fitness level. A lot of factors go into a fitness plan – how big or small the heart attack was, what kind of medication the person is on and their level of physical fitness. In a cardiac rehab program, patients receive an individualized program that will safely guide them back to exercising.
2. Start slow
Walk, don’t run in the beginning. With a small heart attack, your cardiologist will often tell you to wait six weeks before exercising. Following cardio-thoracic surgery, it’s generally six to eight weeks. With any muscle injury, you need time to convalesce and heal, even if you’re an elite athlete. A heart attack involves an injury to the muscle that operates the entire body, and it doesn’t heal overnight.
3. Exercise in a stable, temperate environment
Whether you walk indoors or outdoors, it’s important to avoid extreme temperatures. High and low temperatures make the heart work harder to regulate the temperature of your own body. That’s why many men and women choose to walk in malls or go to the gym.
4. Monitor your heart rate
Your cardiologist can give you a formula to monitor your pulse. But another easy guide is to maintain a level of exertion where you can still converse comfortably. When you first start working out, you should be able to carry on a full conversation without becoming breathless.
5. Keep sweat to a minimum in the beginning
If you’re dripping with sweat in the beginning, you’re probably working out too hard. Light exercise and easy walking should not beget heavy sweat. Save that for later months, when you’ve prepared your body for the harder work.
6. Buy proper clothing
Just as you want to work out in a temperate environment, you want comfortable clothes – i.e. you don’t want to overheat and you don’t want to freeze. Choose either 100 percent cotton or technical apparel that wicks away moisture. Also, purchase a good pair of shoes to prevent injuries.
7. Hydrate properly
This is something you may have to monitor more closely than before. After a heart attack, you want to avoid significant fluid shifts. Many patients are on medication that lowers their blood pressure, and low fluids could lower blood pressure to a dangerous level. On the other hand, if a patient is on fluid restriction, they should talk to their doctor about the amount of fluids they can safely consume while exercising.
8. Listen to your body
If something feels off, call your cardiologist. If it’s chest discomfort, sharp pain, dizziness or other symptoms, stop what you’re doing and make the call.
9. Stay connected
Always take your cell phone with you when you work out. It will come in handy in case of an emergency. Also, include friends and family in your recuperation process and workouts. A running buddy is a great motivator, and makes workouts more enjoyable.
10. Watch your diet
When it comes to conditioning your body, exercise is only part of the equation. Diet also plays a role. Patients who have had a heart attack should be eating a low-fat diet, and limiting their intake of red meat and alcohol while eliminating caffeine.
11. Get plenty of rest
Keep in mind that your body has been through a lot and there is still work ahead. You’re going back to work, exercising and handling the daily stresses of life. Make sure you get plenty of rest so you can be your best.
Kate Silver is an award-winning journalist based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in Washington Post, Men’s Health, Chicago Tribune and other online and print publications.