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Exercise After Heart Attack: Establishing a New, Healthy, Normal

Cardiac Rehab participants lifting weights

Our program helps patients establish or re-establish healthy exercise habits of 20 to 30 minutes of exercises five to seven times a week, which is what all of us should be doing.

Michelle Rylander

“Patients can be a little freaked out after a heart attack,” says Kristen Frechette, RN, nurse manager, Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation. “It can reduce the confidence of patients who already had good exercise habits and keep others from building them.”

A heart patient’s worries about exercise are understandable, but concerning. Studies show that exercise reduces the risk of all causes of death by 27 percent—and of cardiac related death by 31 percent. Building and maintaining good exercise habits is a critical component of ongoing health and wellness but, despite the encouraging statistics, only 30 percent of cardiac patients in the U.S. enroll in an exercise program.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Cardiac Rehabilitation program is beating those numbers with an 80 percent enrollment rate in its supervised Cardiac Rehabilitation Exercise Program. “We have two advantages, an on-site Cardiac Rehabilitation Program and a really great team of nurses and exercise therapists,” says Terrance Welch, MD, medical director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation Team. “Every day, nurses work with physicians to identify patients who can benefit from and need referral to the program. If a patient lives too far away to use our facility, the team goes out of its way to refer them to an outlying program. We don’t miss anyone.”

Each patient’s experience with the program begins with a bedside visit. “A nurse explains the program and how exercise reduces the risk of heart attack and improves overall quality of life. They also take the patients for a walk to assess their strength and ability, and to get them excited about the program.”

When ready, patients participate in group exercise sessions. Exercise groups allow patients to learn from others who have had a heart attack or heart-related event, and offer a supportive community to each member, regardless of age, condition or circumstance.

Patients ease into a guided exercise program that includes aerobic activities like walking or rowing. Activity level is adjusted to each patient, as are instructions and tips for managing diet and medication. Patients also learn how to cope with the stress of their condition and recovery.

“Each year, about 200 patients attend exercise class three times a week for six weeks,” says Frechette. “Participants also meet with nutritionists and pharmacists, and learn to improve their health and well-being and how to live with a heart diagnosis.”

“Many patients continue to use our facility to exercise even after they’ve completed their 18 to 36 program sessions,” says Welch. “They like the camaraderie and our team of nurses and therapists who get rave reviews.”

Michelle Rylander, exercise specialist in Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation, explains that exercise addresses every risk factor for cardiac conditions—blood pressure, cholesterol and weight. “Our program helps patients establish or re-establish healthy exercise habits of 20 to 30 minutes of exercises five to seven times a week, which is what all of us should be doing.”

Learn more about Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s Cardiac Rehabilitation program.


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