Getting to the heart of cardiac rehabilitation

February 2, 2022

February is Heart Month

If you've recently had a heart attack or other cardiac event, you may be referred to cardiac rehabilitation. But at a time when you are already feeling worried and unsure of the future, starting something new can seem daunting. To help make this next step easier, here's an overview of cardiac rehabilitation so you will know what to expect.  

What is cardiac rehabilitation?

At its most basic, cardiac rehabilitation is medically supervised exercise that helps you regain strength, prevents your condition from getting worse and improves your quality of life. As Alex Edye-Mazowita, CSEP clinical exercise physiologist and disability case manager at Manitoba Blue Cross points out, the purpose of a cardiac rehabilitation program is to "help you get to that point where you're at reduced likelihood of a bad health outcome."

Physically fit people who have a history of cardiovascular disease can live longer than non-fit people with no such history. So while your medical history can impact the risk of future cardiovascular incidents, there are more important risk factors that can be modified to improve your long-term health.

How does it work?

In most cases, you'll be referred to a cardiac rehab program upon your discharge from hospital. After an assessment, you will take a baseline exercise test that measures your fitness pre-rehabilitation. This involves a series of increasingly rigorous stages of exercise designed to test your maximum output, with a doctor standing by to observe your heart's activity.

"At the start of the program, you might do a light group warmup using no equipment before you do half an hour of light to moderate physical activity on a machine," says Edye-Mazowita.  

From there, you'll be prescribed a supervised exercise regimen with a goal to improve your fitness level and heart health. This exercise prescription will be reassessed as you become stronger. The program takes around four months, and the number of weekly sessions will differ from person to person.  

Your progress may be evaluated in several different ways, like comparing your baseline test to a test at four months, checking your blood markers or assessing functional measurements like your walking speed.

For those with disabilities, cardiac rehab centres offer extra supports that other fitness centres may not have. Edye-Mazowita provides the example of a recumbent step machine having Velcro straps. This simple addition means an individual who suffered a stroke can attach their hands and feet to the machine and get cardio exercise without gripping or walking.  

In addition to scheduled group exercise sessions with a kinesiologist or nurse (with a doctor often on-site), participants can also get group-based education on risk factors and lifestyle changes. They can also schedule one-on-one sessions with a cardiac psychologist or registered dietitian for further support.  

There are cardiac rehabilitation centres throughout the province, including Brandon, The Pas, Morden and Winnipeg.

Exercise outside sessions

If you're in the midst of a cardiac rehabilitation program, you may be physically active only during your sessions and stay sedentary otherwise. But it's important to recognize that- as long as you clear it with your physician beforehand- you shouldn't limit exercise to just your cardiac rehab sessions.

"Your heart doesn't know the difference between an expensive treadmill with WiFi versus a cheaper treadmill down the block or even just walking on the sidewalk," Edye-Mazowita says. "So once you have that comfort level, I would avoid thinking that your health and fitness are tied to a particular place if getting to or paying for that place isn't fitting your lifestyle."

Research shows that increasing your daily activity- even if only by a few minutes- can have a significant effect on your long-term heart health.

Cardiac rehabilitation coverage

Cardiac rehabilitation programs can cost hundreds of dollars. In Winnipeg, cardiac rehabilitation sites charge $265 for the four-month program. To check if you have coverage for cardiac rehabilitation, log in to your mybluecross® account.

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