Cardiac Rehabilitation

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is cardiac rehabilitation?

Cardiac rehabilitation, also called cardiac rehab, is a medically supervised program designed to improve the health and functioning of the heart and cardiovascular system. Heart specialists tailor it to the unique needs of individuals who have heart conditions or have had heart surgery. Cardiac rehab can include physical exercise, nutrition counseling, and education regarding stress reduction, smoking cessation, and heart-healthy living.

A cardiac rehabilitation program typically takes a few weeks.

Why is cardiac rehabilitation performed?

Cardiac rehab helps strengthen the heart and improve blood flow. It can help with post-surgical recovery and healing, as well as recovery after heart attack. Cardiac rehabilitation gives people with heart disease the information and support they need to adopt healthier behaviors.

Your doctor may recommend cardiac rehab if you have:

Cardiac rehabilitation complements medical and surgical treatment of heart conditions. People who participate in cardiac rehab programs usually experience improved health. According to a study published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology, cardiac rehab can decrease the risk of death due to a heart condition by 26%.

Who performs cardiac rehabilitation?

Your cardiac rehab team may include doctors, nurses, physical and occupational therapists, nutritionists, and mental health specialists. A mental health specialist can help you work through the emotional ups and downs of surviving a serious cardiac event like a heart attack, recovering from heart surgery, or living with a serious heart condition.  

Your heart doctor (a cardiologist) will usually be the one to recommend rehabilitation. Your cardiologist will also track your overall progress. Specially trained registered nurses will evaluate your physical health and needs during your first rehab appointment. They work with your doctor and the rest of your team to create a rehabilitation program to meet your unique needs.

How is cardiac rehabilitation performed?

Cardiac rehab takes place at an outpatient clinic or hospital-based cardiac rehab center. The room typically contains exercise equipment (such as treadmills, stationary bikes and weights), medical equipment (blood pressure cuffs, oxygen, EKG machines, and a defibrillator), and a resource area stocked with books and informative pamphlets.

During your visits, staff will check your vital signs, including your heartbeat, blood pressure, and oxygen levels. They will show you how to safely use the exercise equipment and carefully monitor your heart and health while you exercise. They’ll help you gradually increase your activity over time.

You’ll also likely meet with a dietitian or health educator, who will teach you more about heart-healthy eating habits and help you design an eating plan. If you smoke, you may meet a smoking cessation specialist. You may also learn relaxation techniques and stress management skills.

What to expect the day of your cardiac rehabilitation

In general, this is what happens on cardiac rehabilitation days: 

  • A nurse will ask how you’ve been doing and check your vital signs.

  • You’ll probably do at least a few minutes of physical exercise. A nurse may monitor your heart, blood pressure, oxygen level, and heart rhythm while you exercise.

  • A nurse or therapist may teach you new exercise techniques.

  • You will meet other people who have heart problems and are working to improve their health.

  • You may participate in a group class or receive individual health counseling.

Most people attend 2 to 3 cardiac rehab sessions per week.

What are the risks and potential complications of cardiac rehabilitation?

Cardiac rehabilitation is generally very safe. In fact, for most people with heart problems, participating in cardiac rehab is less risky than skipping it. That’s because cardiac rehab allows you to strengthen your heart, increase your activity, and modify your risk factors under expert supervision. However, physical activity includes some risk.

Risks and potential complications of cardiac rehab include:

Because the medical team carefully monitors people during cardiac rehabilitation, serious problems—such as an irregular heart rate or heart attack—can be identified and addressed almost immediately by trained personnel.

You can reduce your risk of certain complications by:

  • Honestly answering questions about how you’re feeling

  • Notifying your healthcare team immediately if you’re experiencing any chest pain, dizziness, discomfort or difficulty breathing

  • Using the exercise techniques recommended by your healthcare team

  • Following all instructions regarding safe use of equipment

  • Taking your medications exactly as directed

How do I prepare for cardiac rehabilitation?

You can prepare for a cardiac rehab by:

  • Dressing in comfortable clothing—exercise clothing is ideal

  • Bringing a list of your medications. Include all prescription medication, over-the-counter drugs, herbal treatments, and vitamins.

  • Bringing a water bottle. Water will be available to you, but you may be more comfortable with your own bottle.

  • Compiling a list of questions. If you think of a question or concern in between appointments, jot it down. Bring your questions with you to your next appointment.

Questions to ask your doctor

Here is a list to questions to ask your doctor about cardiac rehab:

  • Why are you recommending cardiac rehabilitation for me?

  • How will cardiac rehab help me?

  • Where will I go for cardiac rehab? Can I choose my own location?

  • How long will I have to attend cardiac rehab? How will you know when I am ready to end cardiac rehab?

  • What kind of safety equipment is in the cardiac rehab room?

  • How will I be monitored during cardiac rehab?

  • Who should I talk to if I have additional questions and concerns? Ask for names and numbers to call.

What can I expect after my cardiac rehabilitation?

Most insurance plans will cover 36 supervised sessions of cardiac rehab over 12 weeks. By the end of that time, you’ll be stronger and healthier. Your blood pressure and heart rate may be better, and you may have lost weight. Your blood sugar and cholesterol levels may be lower, and you’ll probably feel less stressed.

Your cardiac rehab team will give you directions about how to continue your activity and healthy habits. It is important to eat right, exercise, and practice stress reduction techniques even after your cardiac rehab sessions end and your doctor clears you for normal activities.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jan 23
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

  1. Cardiac Rehabilitation. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/cardiacrehabilitation.html

  2. Cardiac Rehabilitation. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/rehab

  3. What Is Cardiac Rehabilitation? American Heart Association. http://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@hcm/documents/downloadable/ucm_300341.pdf

  4. Cardiac Rehab is Life-Saving for Heart Patients. American College of Cardiology. https://www.cardiosmart.org/News-and-Events/2016/01/Cardiac-Rehab-is-Lifesaving-for-Heart-Patients