What you can expect

During cardiac rehabilitation

The first stages of most cardiac rehabilitation programs generally last about three months, but some people may be in programs for a longer period. In special situations, people may be able to do an intensive program that may last one or two weeks, several hours a day. During cardiac rehabilitation, you'll likely work with a team of health care professionals, which may include cardiologists, nurse educators, nutrition specialists, exercise specialists, mental health specialists, and physical and occupational therapists.

Cardiac rehabilitation includes:

  • Medical evaluation. Your health care team will generally perform an initial evaluation to check your physical abilities, medical limitations and other conditions you may have. Ongoing evaluations can help your health care team keep track of your progress over time.

    During your evaluation, your health care team may look at your risk factors for heart complications, particularly during exercise. This can help your team tailor a cardiac rehabilitation program to meet your individual needs, and the team can make sure it's safe and effective for you.

  • Physical activity. Cardiac rehabilitation can improve your cardiovascular fitness through physical activity. Your health care team will likely suggest low impact activities that have a lower risk of injury, such as walking, cycling, rowing, jogging and other activities. You'll usually exercise at least three times a week. Your health care team will likely teach you proper exercise techniques, such as warming up and cooling down.

    You may also do muscle-strengthening exercises, such as lifting weights or other resistance training exercises, two or three times a week to increase your muscular fitness.

    Don't worry if you've never exercised before. Your health care team can make sure the program moves at a comfortable pace and is safe for you.

  • Lifestyle education. You'll usually receive support and education on making healthy lifestyle changes, such as eating a heart-healthy diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and quitting smoking.

    Your health care team may give you guidance about managing conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.

    You'll likely have opportunities to ask questions about such issues as sexual activity. You'll also need to continue taking any medications you've been prescribed by your doctor.

  • Support. Adjusting to a serious health problem often takes time. You may feel depressed or anxious, lose touch with your social support system, or have to stop working for several weeks.

    If you get depressed, don't ignore it. Depression can make your cardiac rehab program more difficult, and it can impact your relationships and other areas of your life and health.

    Counseling can help you learn healthy ways to cope with depression and other feelings. Your doctor may also suggest medications such as antidepressants. Vocational or occupational therapy can teach you new skills to help you return to work.

Although it may be difficult to start a cardiac rehabilitation program when you're not feeling well, you can benefit in the long run. Cardiac rehabilitation can guide you through fear and anxiety as you return to an active lifestyle with more motivation and energy to do the things you enjoy.

Cardiac rehabilitation can help you rebuild your life, both physically and emotionally. As you get stronger and learn how to manage your condition, you'll likely return to a normal routine, along with your new diet and exercise habits.

It's important to know that your chances of having a successful cardiac rehabilitation program rest largely with you. The more dedicated you are to following your program's recommendations, the better you'll do.

After cardiac rehabilitation

After your cardiac rehabilitation program ends, you'll generally need to continue the diet, exercise and other healthy lifestyle habits you learned for the rest of your life to maintain heart-health benefits. The goal is that at the end of the program you're confident to exercise on your own and you're empowered to maintain a healthier lifestyle.