Heart Health

Returning to Life After a Heart Attack

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Having a heart attack can be one of the most frightening experiences many people endure. The pain and fear in that moment, the worry of the unknown and the desperation to reevaluate your life are all difficult challenges to surmount.

Another tough climb that comes after suffering a heart attack is learning how to go back to your “normal” life. You worry that every twinge in your chest could be a sign of another heart attack. Could playing in the backyard with family spark another episode? What about your sex life – is it OK to be intimate with your spouse or partner again? You fear another heart attack is around the corner.

A heart attack is a scary and life-changing event, but it doesn’t mean life as you once knew it is over.

“After a heart attack, many people are afraid to exercise again,” says Dennis Kerrigan, Ph.D., a clinical exercise physiologist at Henry Ford Health System. “When we see patients come into cardiac rehab, they often lack confidence to push themselves with exercise. However, it can be very gratifying to see how far patients can progress in just a few short weeks.”

Another concern patients have is if having sex is safe for their heart. But, Dr. Kerrigan says, in general, if they can walk symptom-free at a moderate pace, most patients are healthy enough to resume intimacy.

How long can it take to feel “normal” again?
Depending on how active you were before the heart attack, the severity of the attack and how your body responded to it, recovery time varies from person to person, Dr. Kerrigan says.

“If a patient had open-heart or bypass surgery, it can take them up to a year to fully recover,” he says. “In these cases, it’s not so much the heart but that their bodies were cut open and need time to heal.”

For those who experienced a less traumatic heart attack or procedure, recovery time can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

“It’s all about getting back to what you used to do, or sometimes even more,” Dr. Kerrigan says. “We encourage people to get back to doing 5Ks and exercising again if that’s what they were doing before.”

Talk to your doctor about reasonable expectations for your own recovery timeline, and what steps to take to get there.

What can I do to prevent a future heart attack?
It’s true that having a heart attack puts you at a greater risk for having another one. But, by changing your lifestyle habits – eating right, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and staying relatively stress free – you can lower your risk and re-strengthen your heart.

It is also important to reevaluate what caused your heart attack in the first place. For example, even if you went to the gym a few days a week, if you spent the rest of the time sitting on the couch, you were putting yourself at an increased risk.

Incorporating small changes into your routine, like going for a walk after dinner, breaking up your work day to stretch and move around every 30 minutes, and making healthy food swaps are all ways to help fuel your heart – and your confidence.

“It’s not the end of your life just because you have heart disease,” Dr. Kerrigan says. “Having a heart attack can be viewed as a second chance to reevaluate what is most important to you and an opportunity for you to make the necessary lifestyle changes to improve your quality of life.”

Finally, if you have questions, be sure to talk to your cardiologist about them. He or she can provide advice for a recovery tailored to your unique health history and circumstances, and offer resources for making those necessary healthy changes.

How healthy is your heart? Take the heart risk quiz to find out. Then, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or find a heart expert at henryford.com or by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Dr. Dennis Kerrigan is a clinical exercise physiologist who sees patients and does exercise research trials at Henry Ford Hospital.