August 15, 2020

If you’ve suffered a heart event or required heart surgery, your physician may prescribe cardiac rehabilitation. Learn about cardiac rehab programs and how they work.


The days and weeks after a heart attack or a heart-related procedure might feel a bit daunting. Maybe you’re eager to get back to your normal routine but nervous about engaging in certain activities. Or perhaps you’re hoping to learn ways to protect your heart going forward. Cardiac rehabilitation programs address these topics so that you feel safe and confident about the future.

“Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program of exercise with the goal of improving a patient’s cardiac health after they’ve experienced an adverse cardiac event,” explained Stefanie Porter, a cardiac surgery nurse practitioner at the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute. Programs are aimed to help patients lower their risk of future cardiac events.

A patient may undergo some initial cardiac rehab exercises while still in the hospital, under the supervision of cardiac rehabilitation therapists. At discharge, they may require a few weeks of home health care before starting an outpatient cardiac rehab program. Everyone’s journey will be based on his or her unique situation. Most outpatient cardiac rehab programs will last for 12 weeks, with patients visiting the facility three times per week if possible. “Sometimes patients can’t make it three days a week,” Porter said. “We encourage them to do whatever amount they are able to.”

Getting active again

Returning to exercise or beginning a new exercise program after a heart event can be frightening. Some patients worry about symptoms like shortness of breath or a racing heartbeat. At a cardiac rehab facility, therapists monitor your vital signs during activity to ensure your safety. “Patients will have that confidence to push themselves a little further because therapists monitor them,” Porter explained.

Medical professionals, including nurses and exercise physiologists, supervise and guide patients through every step of the process. “Cardiac rehab helps patients regain strength in a safe and controlled environment so they can get back to doing the things that they enjoy, get back to work and really start taking control of their health,” Porter explained.

Making diet and lifestyle changes

Your heart health depends on more than just exercise. Some cardiac rehabilitation programs will also have a dietitian on staff, or refer patients to one, Porter said. A dietitian can evaluate your go-to foods and offer suggestions for heart-friendly snacks and meals. Lifestyle factors also play a role in pumping up your heart health, so a smoking cessation program or stress reduction techniques may also be part of a patient’s cardiac rehab plan.

Finding support

The benefits of a cardiac rehab program also offer patients a support network when they most need it. Mental health professionals will team up with you if you’re dealing with depression or anxiety after experiencing a traumatic heart incident or after undergoing surgery. Some cardiac rehab facilities also offer group sessions where you can glean support from people who’ve also had a similar experience or procedure. That social support can really help provide a positive outcome for patients, Porter said.

Setting and achieving goals

Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s cardiac rehab facility, located within the Dayani Center for Health & Wellness, aims to help patients define life goals, Porter said. You might have a goal to play with your grandkids for 10 minutes without running out of energy, Porter offered as an example. “At the Dayani Center,” she said, “we have staff who are able to really meet the patients where they are and to help them identify the things that are important to them.”

This goal-setting helps patients latch on to something bigger than heart health, and it can really spur motivation.

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If you are seeking expert care for a heart condition, the dedicated specialists at Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute can provide you with the personalized treatment you need. Our team works together to give you the best possible care, so you can continue to live an active, healthy life. Our multiple locations mean that you are always close to advanced heart care. For an appointment, call 615-322-2318.