What You Should Do After a Heart Attack

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on August 20, 2022
5 min read

Most people survive a first heart attack and go on to live a full and productive life. To ensure you do the same, there are steps you need to take.

Typically, you’ll be in the hospital for 2 days to a week after a heart attack. But if you have complications, or if you’ve had other procedures, like bypass surgery, you’ll probably stay longer.

One of the first things you may notice in the hospital is that your medication routine might change. The doctor might make adjustments to your dosage or the number of medicines you take. They’ll probably put you on new meds, too. These will treat and control your symptoms and the things that led to your heart attack in the first place.

It's important to talk with your doctor about your meds. Make sure you:

  • Know the names of everything you take.
  • Be clear on how and when to take them.
  • Ask your doctor about side effects.
  • Learn what each medicine does and why you’re taking it.
  • Make a list of the things you take. Keep it with you in case of an emergency or if you need to talk with another doctor about them.

After a heart attack, it's normal to feel:

These often last anywhere from 2 to 6 months. They can affect your:

  • Ability to exercise
  • Family life and work
  • Overall recovery

Some time with your doctor or a mental health specialist can help you deal with negative feelings. Let your family know about what you’re going through, too. If they don't know, they can't help.

Many hospitals have an outpatient rehabilitation program. If yours doesn’t, your doctor may refer you to a heart center that runs one.

These can help you in many ways:

  • They can help speed up your recovery.
  • You’ll work with people who specialize in heart health.
  • The staff there will show you how to make changes that can protect and strengthen your heart.
  • You'll take part in activities that will improve your heart function and lower your heart rate.
  • Using what you learn will lower your chance of complications or dying from heart disease.

Most cardiac rehab programs consist of three parts:

You’ll need to do some stuff to help lower your risk of heart attack and heart disease:

Stop smoking. If you smoke, the single most important thing you can do -- not just for your heart but for your entire body -- is stop. It's also one of the hardest changes to make. But your doctor can help.

Ask your doctor about:

  • A plan for giving up smoking
  • Alternatives to tobacco, such as nicotine gum, patches, and prescription medicines
  • Support groups and programs to help people quit
  • Other resources you can use to stop

Just because you've tried before doesn't mean you can't quit now. Most people have to try several times before they stop for good.

It's also important to insist that people not smoke in your home. Try to stay away from places where smokers gather, too. Secondhand smoke can raise your chance of having heart disease.

Treat high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Both of these damage your arteries. Over time, they increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Exercise, a healthy diet, and lifestyle changes can help. But they may not be enough. You may be prescribed medicine to help.

Manage diabetes and obesity: They’re major risk factors for heart disease and heart attack. If you have diabetes, it's important that you work with your doctor to keep your blood sugar in check. Exercise, diet, and in some cases medicine can help. Work with your team to come up with a plan.

Obesity can lead to not only heart disease, but also diabetes. Your doctor can help you work out a way for you to take in fewer calories while you burn more. They might also refer you to a dietitian and put you on an exercise program.

Eat a heart-healthy diet. You’ve found the right one if it:

  • Is low in unhealthy fats
  • Contains at least 4 to 5 cups of fruits and vegetables every day
  • Has at least two, 3.5-ounce servings of fish a week
  • Includes at least three 1-ounce servings of fiber-rich whole grains every day
  • Is low in sodium (less than 1,500 milligrams per day)
  • Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Has no processed meats.

There may be other restrictions because of medicines you take. Ask your doctor if there are foods you shouldn’t eat.

Changing your diet is easier if you work with a dietitian. They can help you plan menus and find recipes. They’ll also help you find resources that let you focus on eating healthy foods.

If you aren't able to work with a dietitian as part of your rehab program, ask your doctor for a referral. You can also find recipes and nutritional aids on the web.

Become more active: One of the most important keys to good heart health is to exercise. Some people are afraid to exercise after a heart attack. But that’s exactly what you need to do to strengthen your heart and lower your chance of having future heart attacks and heart disease.

A cardiac rehab program is a safe way to become more active. If you don't have a program available to you, be sure to talk with your doctor about what level of exercise is safe for you and how to get more activity into your daily routine. They may have you take a stress test to see what level of exercise is safe to start with.

Also, ask what warning signs you should watch for when you exercise and what you should do about them.

A regular exercise routine (for instance, three to five times a week for 30 to 35 minutes each) will help strengthen your heart and improve your overall health. But the real goal is to become more active in everyday life. The more active you are -- taking brisk walks, playing with your children or grandchildren, going for bike rides, etc. -- the stronger and healthier you'll become.

A heart attack isn’t a sign you should back away from life and stop doing the things you like to do. It is a sign that you need to make your physical and mental health your priority.