There’s no opportune moment for a heart attack. When it strikes, you’re always unprepared. And, once you’re in the throes of one, there’s no turning back – you just have to get the immediate medical attention you need.
But, when the shock and fuss of a heart attack wears off, what are you left with? A whole lot of cardiac knowledge you never knew you wanted, a bag full of medications, and a ton of lifestyle changes to make.
The post-heart attack haze can be unsettling, and life after a cardiac event is never the same. That’s why it’s critical to know how you can bounce back from a heart attack and familiarize yourself every aspect of the recovery process.
Diet & Exercise
Naturally, the first step is physical recovery. When you’re sent home after your heart attack, your initial instructions will be easy: get plenty of rest. The first two weeks post-heart attack should be dedicated to taking it slow and steady.
Once you get the green light from your doctor that you’re okay to exercise, it’s recommended that you begin implementing a regular cardio regimen. Cardio exercise strengthens your heart muscle and optimizes the oxygen and blood flow to this part of your body.
It’s good to start light, with 20-30 minutes of light walking every day. Nothing to get your heart rate up, just an effort to get your body moving. Once you can do this without feeling drained or tired, you can increase your pace and the time you spend walking.
Other steady-state cardio activities include swimming and bicycling. While there are certainly high-intensity cardio exercises, you can avoid these for now. Eventually, you may be able to work your way up to jogging, but it’s best to wait until you’ve had about a year of recovery.
You’ll need a healthy diet to support your heart and your newfound fitness routine also. After a heart attack, you’ll want to cut back on:
- Processed and fried foods
- Sodium (less than 1,500 mg/day)
- Sugary beverages (less than 36 oz. per week)
- Red meat
- Saturated & trans fats
- High-fat dairy products
In lieu of these delicious but dangerous foods, opt for:
- White meat & 2 servings of fish per week
- 4-5 cups of fruit and veggies each day
- Three 1 oz. servings of whole grains each day
- Non-fat and 2% dairy products
Being at an unhealthy weight will increase your risk for having another heart attack, so making the aforementioned changes are just as essential for further prevention as they are for recovery.
Going back to work
This aspect of your recovery varies largely on the kind of work you do, and the severity of your cardiac event. Most doctors clear heart attack patients for work between two weeks and three months after the initial event.
Part-time workers and individuals that don’t have stressful jobs can likely make an earlier comeback. Meanwhile, workers with stressful or physically taxing jobs (like manual labor) may want to take a longer period of time to recover. It’s also worth starting off part-time before easing back into full-time work.
Confirming that your workplace has an AED and other resources handy in the event of another heart attack can significantly help your peace of mind, and ensure you’re prepared for the worst case scenario.
It’s no surprise that having a heart attack can follow with depression and anxiety. Up to 20% of cardiac bypass patients face depression that persists for two or more weeks after their surgery. Not only can this be mentally unsettling, it can hinder heart health.
Anxiety and depression correspond to higher stress levels and, therefore, higher blood pressure. The stress hormone cortisol is also associated with increased cholesterol and blood sugar. Anxiety can also trigger panic attacks, which can feel alarmingly similar to a heart attack. They’re characterized by heart palpitations, a tightness, in the chest, and a tingling in the arm.
To avoid false alarms and heart distress, ask your doctor about solutions for the emotional consequences of a heart attack. While anti-depressants may not be the solution, as their side effects can contribute to heart irregularities, therapy and meditation may be an option. Combined with diet and exercise, you’re sure to make a heart-healthy recovery.
A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that heart attack survivors with poor social support are more likely to suffer from depression. Being with family and friends after a heart attack can significantly impact emotional recovery.
These support systems are also necessary for practical reasons too. Since heart attack patients can’t drive for the first few weeks after their recovery, friends and family are helpful for transporting them to doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, and the pharmacy.
Similarly, they help with household chores the heart attack patient may not be able to conduct themselves. Most importantly, they can call emergency services if another heart attack strikes.
Social support is also essential for accountability. Having an encouraging support system will help you stay on track with the new lifestyle changes, and sometimes you can even find someone who is willing to engage in your new exercise regimen with you.
A heart attack changes almost every aspect of your life, and part of the process of engraining these changes into habit will be surrounding yourself with positive influences and unwavering encouragement – from your support system, from your medical team, and from yourself.