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Women: Rehabilitation can help treat heart disease

Too often, women miss out on cardiac rehabilitation. These programs provide proven benefits for everyone with heart disease.

If you're at high risk for heart disease, or already know you have it, one of the most important things you can do is ask your doctor about cardiac rehabilitation.

Research clearly shows that these individualized programs of education, exercise, counseling and support help women with heart disease live longer, healthier, happier and more active lives.

If you have heart disease, you owe it to yourself and the people who love you to find out about cardiac rehab. It can save your life and make it much, much better.

What is it?

Cardiac rehab is a group of healthcare services designed to help you and your heart recover as fully as possible from heart disease, heart surgery or a heart attack.

Cardiac rehab can start in the hospital after a heart attack or heart surgery, or your doctor may refer you to a program. The program may be based at a hospital, medical center, community facility, workplace or another location. Sometimes, a home-based program can be guided by a health professional.

Depending on your general health and personal needs, your program could include:

  • An exercise prescription tailored to your abilities, goals and tastes. This can range from structured groups to simple activities you do at home in your own free time.
  • Classes about heart-healthy nutrition and cooking methods.
  • Education and support for improving your heart health.
  • Support groups where you talk with other people facing the same adjustments, challenges and fears.
  • Vocational guidance to help you get back to work.
  • Counseling to help you manage stress, quit smoking or cope with the emotional impact of heart disease.

A cardiac rehab team may include doctors, nurses, exercise specialists, physical and occupational therapists, dietitians, psychologists, and behavioral therapists.

What's in it for you

You'll feel better. Cardiac rehab is very good at reducing symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath, says Noel Bairey Merz, MD, scientific chair for the Women's Ischemia Syndrome Evaluation (WISE) study, a landmark study designed to close the gender gap in heart research. This helps make simple, daily activities and all forms of physical activity much easier.

You'll be healthier. People who go through cardiac rehab are more likely to make long-term, healthy lifestyle changes and take prescribed medications, according to Dr. Bairey Merz.

You'll live longer. Cardiac rehab reduces the risk of heart-related death, says Dr. Bairey Merz.

You'll have a better outlook. Counseling, support and physical activity help ease the depression and anxiety that often come with heart problems.

Getting in, staying in

If you have heart disease or you're at high risk, ask your doctor if a cardiac rehab program is right for you.

If you decide to start cardiac rehab, these suggestions can help you stick with it:

When signing up for classes or support groups, choose times and locations that are convenient for you.

Don't undersell yourself. If you'd be willing to go out of your way to get a loved one to rehab, be willing to do the same for yourself, says Dr. Bairey Merz. Value your own health as much as you value your family's.

Expect to enjoy it. You may find that the exercise, education and the chance to meet other people are all fun.

Find ways around other obstacles. If finances or transportation problems are keeping you out of rehab, talk to someone on your healthcare team. There may be agencies or resources that can help that you don't know about.

Deal with depression. If you're feeling so sad and hopeless that it's getting in the way of your daily life, you may have depression. This medical condition should be treated in addition to heart disease. Tell your doctor if you think you may be depressed.

For health's sake

Heart disease is every American woman's No. 1 health threat, according to the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. All women should take this threat seriously, but if you have it or if you're at high risk, you need to be especially vigilant.

Ask your doctor about cardiac rehab. If you're referred, follow it through. You're worth it.

Reviewed 11/18/2020

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