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Exercise Good for the Heart, Even After a Heart Attack.

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Jan. 30, 2002 -- Exercise, it seems, is the magic bullet for all that ails us. Studies have shown that people who are active are generally better adjusted, clearer thinking, less likely to develop heart problems due to stress, and less anxious or depressed.

And experts at the American Heart Association say that inactivity is a major risk factor for heart disease. Now researchers say they have evidence that exercise does more than just prevent heart disease -- exercise also can increase the odds of surviving a heart attack and help prevent a second one.

A report, published in the Oct. 30, 2000, issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, shows that patients who remained physically active after a first heart attack had a 60% lower risk of having a second heart attack than those who did not. Called the Corpus Christi Heart Project, it is the first study that uses significant numbers of people to analyze the use of exercise in cardiac rehabilitation and survival.

The study, led by Lyn Steffen-Batey, PhD, who was a University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston epidemiologist at the time of the investigation, shows that people who were active before their first heart attack and who maintained their exercise level after a heart attack had a 79% lower risk of death from a second attack. Those who increased their activity also increased their chances of survival -- with 89% less risk of dying after a second heart attack and with 78% less risk of even having a second one.

"Patients are better able to survive another event it they are exercising," says Barbara Belmont, MS, director of cardiac rehabilitation at the Dallas Veterans Affairs Medical Center. "They are also less likely to have a repetition."

However, she tells WebMD that it's important that exercise fits the patient and the severity of the heart attack. The exercise program must recondition the patient and not strain the heart.

"Long, slow activity that builds up endurance, such as walking and bicycling, is important," Belmont says. "It will lower cholesterol and lipids. However, though aerobic exercise is most important, we don't want to lose the strength either."

People with heart disease begin with a walking program that builds up gradually, and they ride stationary bikes and use treadmills, Belmont says. But, she adds, it's important to do upper body exercises to strengthen these areas because arm and upper body movements actually are more taxing on the heart.

"Someone who has been smoking and sedentary all their life will take longer to recover than a farmer who has been walking and doing physical work all his life," Belmont says. "A person who's been conditioned will recover faster. This has to be an aggressive risk management program, not just an exercise program."

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