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Person riding a stationary bike at the gym.
Person riding a stationary bike at the gym.

What Is Cardiac Rehabilitation?

Helping Patients Get Stronger After a Cardiac Event

Every body, every heart and every cardiac event are different. That means that every person’s recovery after such an event is different, too. For many, cardiac rehabilitation is an important part of recovery.

Cardiac rehabilitation is a comprehensive program designed to improve cardiovascular health after a cardiac event or procedure. It includes monitored cardiovascular exercise meant to strengthen heart muscles, educational programs and more. Northwestern Medicine offers cardiac rehabilitation programs at 11 locations, helping patients with cardiovascular conditions achieve optimal health, get back to enjoying the activities of daily life and reduce the risk of future cardiac health events.

According to the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation, the long-term benefits of cardiac rehabilitation include:

  • A 20% to 30% reduction in deaths from all causes and reduced hospitalization
  • Being better able to return to work and do everyday activities
  • Reduced symptoms of angina (chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart), difficulty breathing, fatigue and heart attack
  • Increased exercise performance and ability to do leisure activities
  • Better quality of life and emotional health, including a decrease in anxiety and depression
  • Better cholesterol and blood pressure

Giving It a Go

“It can feel really scary for our patients to get back into exercise after they’ve experienced a cardiac event,” says Kristin Montero, MS, an exercise physiologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “We encourage patients who are referred to the program to give it a chance, even if they are hesitant. Cardiac rehabilitation provides a safe environment to get back to exercising since they are so closely monitored, and there are so many other benefits aside from the physical.”

Here’s what you can expect from Northwestern Medicine cardiac rehabilitation programs:

  • Patients are encouraged to attend three sessions per week for 12 weeks. Insurance will typically cover 36 sessions, but you should check with your insurance plan. The first few sessions are usually spent getting to know you, your goals, your concerns, understanding your diet and how you used to exercise.
  • During each session, you will complete 40 minutes of exercise. The type of exercise can vary from patient to patient. It could be anything from walking on a treadmill to using the rowing machine to doing circuit training or using the weight machines.
  • You will wear a telemetry box on your waistband to monitor your heart rate and rhythm during your workouts. You will also have your blood pressure taken before, during and after your workout.
  • A staff member will hold weekly educational sessions. These focus on various topics including: weight management, nutrition, blood pressure, motivation, strength and balance, and more. If you are at Northwestern Medicine’s Cardiac Rehabilitation location in downtown Chicago, a cardiac fellow (a physician who is in a graduate training program) will lead these sessions.
  • Psychosocial evaluations will help identify potential areas for concern including depression screenings and weight or diet management. 

Getting Support and Gaining Confidence

Through the educational sessions, you get to discuss your concerns, ask an expert or physician questions and learn from other patients. These sessions almost become a sort of support group; hearing one another talk about their experiences helps patients form common bonds and many build lasting friendships.

“Every patient that we see is different. I think it’s a common misconception that all of our patients are ‘old’,” says Montero. “We see a wide array of people — ranging from 30 years old to 94, from marathon runners to patients who have never exercised before. But the great thing about our program is that we can really individualize it to each patient and their unique needs and goals.”

Montero notes that the program helps improve her patients’ confidence. Cardiac rehabilitation helps them feel like they can work out again. She says that it also has a huge impact on patients’ mental and emotional health as well.

One example is a man in his forties who was referred to the cardiac rehabilitation program after experiencing a heart attack and had multiple stents. Stents are small mesh tubes used to hold open weak or narrowed arteries, placed three different times.

He was young, healthy and didn’t have many risk factors you might typically think of — in fact, he had completed several triathlons. When he began the cardiac rehabilitation program in May, he was discouraged and scared to start working out again. He started out slow and set a goal of running a 10K race by end of the program. As the weeks went on, he started to feel like himself again and began regaining his confidence. By November, he achieved his goal by participating in the Hot Chocolate Run in Chicago, Illinois. Montero says he left the program as totally different person than when he began.

“The best part about my job is building relationships with patients because I am seeing them consistently over and over again,” Montero says. “Rarely does that happen anywhere else in a hospital setting, and it’s really cool to see them change, evolve and improve over time.”