Deb Kautz, 47, of Zumbro Falls, Minn., said she felt like "a wreck" after her heart attack. She was afraid to move, afraid that any exertion could set off another attack. This fear could have left her stuck to the couch, but she took another route. Within two weeks of her attack, she started attending the cardiac rehabilitation program at the Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester.
Kautz started slowly walking on a treadmill. With a heart monitor on her chest and an exercise physiologist looking over her shoulder, she no longer worried about overstressing her heart. She could just focus on getting better. Certified exercise specialist Anne Wolter has been working with patients like Kautz at the Mayo Clinic for 20 years. "Most patients aren't thrilled about starting rehab," she says. But after attending two to four sessions a week for three months—the time period generally covered by insurance—their attitude changes completely. "The best thing about cardiac rehab is when patients start gaining strength and feeling better," Wolter says. "A lot of them leave saying they're in their best shape in years." What happens in cardiac rehab?
Participants in cardiac rehab do more than just work out. They receive nutritional advice from counselors, they get screened for depression, and they can mingle with lots of other people who are in the same straits.
For all of these reasons, heart patients who attend cardiac rehabilitation tend to recover faster and more completely than people who don't, says Sharonne Hayes, MD, director of the Mayo Clinic's Women's Heart Clinic.
While cardiac rehabilitation programs are expensive, several studies suggest that they are cost-effective because they reduce future cardiac events and allow people to return to work earlier than they would without therapy. One study found that cardiac rehab saved the government $12,000 per patient.
Although cardiac rehab programs have become standard at hospitals across the country, "far too many patients miss out on the incredible opportunity," says Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the NYU Women's Heart Program. "Nationwide only about 15% to 20% of patients eligible for rehab ever get a referral from their doctors. Even fewer actually attend."
If you're recovering from a heart attack or bypass surgery, ask your doctor about the local cardiac rehab program. You might have to be persistent. That same attitude will serve you well as you rehab your way to recovery.