Exercise as Medicine: A Prescription for Heart Health

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Many doctors agree that if exercise were a pill, it would be the most prescribed. It can help you lose weight and trim inches from your waistline even when the scale isn’t budging. It can boost self-esteem, improve quality of life, reduce stress, and plays an important role in the treatment and prevention of many chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, obesity and hypertension. The Heart & Stroke Foundation estimates that if you are inactive and become physically active, you can reduce heart attack risk by 35-55%.

For people with known heart disease – those who have had a heart attack, heart surgery or angioplasty – exercise, at the right intensity and duration, is medicine. It can complement traditional therapies like medication management and interventions like angioplasty and surgery. It can help individuals with heart disease, or known risk factors for heart disease, control blood lipid abnormalities and diabetes, and help to lower blood pressure.

Why is Exercise so Important Following a Heart Event?

Exercise plays an important role in both primary and secondary prevention of heart disease. If you are not physically active, your heart muscle has to work much harder to circulate oxygen to other muscles in your body. Muscles that are not in physical shape also require much more oxygen than those that are fit, which puts added demand on your heart. As a result the physically inactive person’s heart ends up working overtime to pump the higher amounts of oxygen the out-of-shape muscles need, which can lead to increased heart rate and high blood pressure. For a person with heart disease, this added stress can put them at risk for future heart problems.

In addition, being active for at least 150 minutes per week has been shown to provide some protection against several risk factors for heart disease, including:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides
  • Increase HDL (good) cholesterol
  • Control blood sugar by improving how your body uses insulin
  • Control body weight

Although the thought of exercising after a heart event or surgery can be overwhelming, even daunting, its benefits far outweigh its risks, especially under the guidance of a cardiac rehabilitation program.

What is Cardiac Rehabilitation?

Cardiac rehabilitation is a medically-supervised program offering a combination of personalized exercise programming, education classes and counseling to assist in achieving heart healthy lifestyle modifications. Some programs also provide medical management aimed at improving specific risk factor related concerns such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes management, weight management, stress management and smoking cessation.

A multidisciplinary team of medical professionals including cardiologists, family doctors, registered nurses, registered dietitians, counselors and certified clinical exercise specialists work together with participants to help them:

  • Identify personal risk factors
  • Improve one’s ability to perform daily activities
  • Lessen symptoms brought on by everyday activity
  • Modify lifestyle habits in order to minimize risk factors and lower chances of developing further heart problems (improve eating habits, manage stress, quit smoking)
  • Improve level of fitness
  • Provide participants with the knowledge, skills and confidence to continue with a healthy lifestyle once the rehabilitation program is complete

Studies have shown that attending cardiac rehabilitation after a heart event can improve heart health, helping participants live longer and stay out of the hospital.

Despite the benefits of a cardiac rehabilitation program, not everyone that qualifies is referred or decides to attend. Efforts are continually made to look for new ways to ensure such programs are accessible to all who could benefit.

A satellite cardiac rehabilitation site was opened at Sunridge World Health by the Mosaic Primary Network and Cardiac WellnessInstitute of Calgary. The new location is designed to help reduce some of the traditional participation barriers such as travel time to increase utilization of an effective program.

Components of a Cardiac Rehab Program:

  • Ongoing Medical Follow-Up: Doctor’s appointments, exercise stress tests and medical monitoring are done at regular intervals.
  • Supervised Exercise Program: The medically supervised exercise program helps to improve cardiovascular fitness through walking, cycling, biking and other aerobic activities.
  • Exercise sessions are held regularly to help establish an exercise routine that the participant will be able to maintain on his or her own once the program is completed.
  • Participants are taught proper exercise techniques, how to use exercise equipment safely and the importance of monitoring their exercise intensity.
  • Support for Lifestyle Change:  Individual appointments with registered dietitians and counselors, and lifestyle education classes are also offered in the program. From seeking advice about heart healthy eating or managing stress to getting support for quitting smoking, the healthcare professional in the rehabilitation program work with each participant to set goals for lifestyle change and help them work towards them.

Most cardiac rehabilitation programs are 12 weeks in duration. Upon graduation, participants must continue with the new lifestyle habits such as exercise to continue to receive the benefits of the therapy. Developing an exercise plan following graduation from the rehabilitation program is critical for success. Many graduates choose to join a local health club to continue with their heart healthy exercise. 

What to Look For in a Fitness Facility of Cardiac Rehab Program for Individuals with or at Risk of Developing a Cardiovascular or Chronic Health Issue:

While several cardiac rehabilitation programs exist in Calgary, there are some general guidelines to follow to find the program that is best suited for you. The exercise or rehabilitation program should:

  • Provide a variety of aerobic exercise options
  • Educate participants on how to self-monitor their exercise sessions (target heart rate, exertion)
  • Allow participants to exercise at a safe level of intensity with progressive options to increase intensity if appropriate
  • Incorporates a gradual and progressive warm-up session and gradual cool-down session
  • Accept participants with a known history of cardiac disease – provided they have physician approval
  • Provide health screening tools for all participants prior to starting program that instructors read and monitor
  • Have a documented emergency plan in place that is known to all exercise leaders and instructors, including of current CPR certification for staff/instructors, phone access to EMS and presence of an AED

One Comment on “Exercise as Medicine: A Prescription for Heart Health”

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