Lynn Swassing was just 48 years old, the mother of two sons in high school and one daughter in college, when she had a heart attack in 1987. She underwent quadruple bypass surgery and was hospitalized for nearly six weeks.
Every single day, at some point, the hospital had an exercise specialist at the foot of my bed, she recalls. They told me, if you don't get active, you won't make it.
No way,was Swassing's first thought. The full-time mom had never been on a treadmill in her life, and she figured the gardening and housework she did at her four-story Omaha home were enough of a workout.
But she gave it a try. After just 10 minutes on the exercise bike, she was ready to quit. For good. They want me to do this for the rest of my life? Are they kidding? she reports thinking. But I kept at it, and after two weeks I felt like a new person.
Since then, Swassing has started every morning with a four-mile walk, and twice a week she goes to the cardiac-rehab center to ride a bike, use a rowing machine, or lift weights.
Regular exercise is vital for keeping your heart healthy -- even for people who have had a heart attack. People who participate in exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation programs have a 25% reduction in mortality, says Mark Williams, MD, professor of medicine in the division of cardiology at Creighton University School of Medicine. (A word to the wise: If you have heart disease, do not start any exercise program without first checking with your doctor.)
The No. 1 cardiovascular exercise for people with heart problems: walking. If there's one single thing a heart patient should do long term, it's a brisk walk three to five days a week, says Philip Ades, MD, director of cardiac rehabilitation at the University of Vermont School of Medicine.
Weight training also has significant benefits for people with heart disease. Resistance training not only enhances the benefits of aerobic fitness, but it appears to provide the added benefit of increased functional capacity and independence, says Williams.
If it hadn't been for exercise rehabilitation, I don't think I would have lived this long, Swassing, now 68, declares. It's done me a world of good, and I'll do it for the rest of my life.
Exercise for Your Heart: Assisted Lunge
The Exercise: Cardio experts recommend the assisted lunge. Stand with one foot about 3 feet in front of the other. Hold onto a chair or railing for balance. Keep your torso straight, and bend your knees and lower body toward the floor. Do not let your front knee bend over your toe. Push back through your front heel to come back up. Repeat 8-10 times, then switch legs. Starting out, heart patients should do just one set, twice a week.
The Benefit: Lunges, basic exercises you can do almost anywhere, strengthen many of the muscles in your legs. By boosting the major muscles of your body, you're also building on what cardiovascular exercise does for your heart.
Originally published in the November/December 2007 issue of WebMD the Magazine.