a couple riding bikes through a wooded trail
a couple riding bikes through a wooded trail
a couple riding bikes through a wooded trail

Why Exercise Matters for Your Heart

After a heart attack , a stroke , a diagnosis of heart failure or a heart procedure, people are often leery about exercising. They may wonder: Can I? Should I? Will I risk another heart event? 

Nurse instructs woman how to properly perform a weightlifting exercise

Yes, you can—and should—be physically active in all these cases, says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Bill McEvoy, M.B., B.Ch. “It’s a no-brainer,” he says. “After a heart problem, once people are able to get up a flight of stairs without symptoms, they can resume mild to moderate exercise.”

Johns Hopkins research has found that in people with stable coronary artery disease, those who exercise have a lower risk of heart attack and have increased survival rates. For many people, a heart event serves as a wake-up call for changing the poor lifestyle habits that led to heart damage in the first place. Exercising more is an especially important first step.

Getting Started With a Heart-Smart Exercise Plan

Take advantage of cardiac rehab after a heart event.

Phase one of cardiac rehabilitation takes place in the hospital. Increasingly, doctors and health insurers see the value of a second phase of cardiac rehab after discharge, often for four to eight weeks. “Patients who undergo phase 2 rehabilitation do better. They return to the hospital less, are more confident about their health and have a better quality of life,” McEvoy says.

Work with your cardio team.

Your doctors and physical therapists will give you an exercise prescription, that is, recommendations for the type of exercise, how often you should do it and how long you can safely work out during each session, given your health status. Knowing your limits and how to recognize them is an important part of challenging yourself to do more.

Pay attention to your symptoms.

It’s normal to sweat and breathe a little harder when you work out. But if you notice shortness of breath or a return of chest pressure, stop the activity and contact your doctor. “The worst thing is when some new symptom appears—not caused by the exercise itself—and the patient ignores it and keeps exercising,” he says. “But as long as you’re feeling comfortable, you can exercise.”

Keep up your fitness.

“People who have had a heart event are at the highest risk of a future event,” McEvoy says. It’s common for a heart attack or other event to serve as a wake-up call to change unhealthy habits, he says. “But it’s also true that over time, you can grow complacent and return to the old habits that got you in trouble in the first place,” he adds.

That’s why it can be helpful to enlist the support of friends and family, or even hire a lifestyle coach or trainer, to keep you engaged in what should be a lifelong commitment to new, heart-healthy ways.

When Is It Okay to Resume Sex After a Cardiovascular Event?

Especially after a heart attack or stroke, a patient may be wary about a particular kind of physical exertion: sexual activity. “Cardiac rehab can help reassure you about having sex,” says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Bill McEvoy, M.B., B.Ch. “If you’ve completed a course of rehab, you can usually safely resume sex. The litmus test is the same as for other physical exertion: Once you can climb a flight of stairs without a problem, you’re usually good to go. As with other exercise, just be observant of your symptoms. If you feel shortness of breath or chest pain or pressure, stop and contact your doctor.”
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