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What it’s like to go to cardiac rehab after a heart attack

Senior woman with fitness instructor at gym recovering from heart attack

This important program can help strengthen your heart and even add years to your life. Here’s what you can expect.

If you’re recovering from a heart attack, you know how scary the experience can be. A heart attack happens when your heart doesn’t get enough blood.1 Thankfully, you got to the hospital in time and you’re back on your feet. 

It’s what happens next that’s important. After a heart attack, you may be at higher risk of other heart-related problems. That includes cardiac arrest, where the heart stops beating without warning.1 

To help protect your heart, your doctor may refer you to cardiac rehab. This is short for “cardiac rehabilitation.” It’s a program built around education and exercise. And it’s designed to make your heart and body stronger. Plus, it can help reduce your stress and teach you heart-healthy habits.2  

If you’ve recently been referred to cardiac rehab, you probably have questions. So, let’s dive right in.  

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How can cardiac rehab help me after a heart attack? 

Cardiac rehab is a medically supervised program that can help lower your odds of future heart issues.2 Your doctor or a heart specialist may refer you to this program if you’ve had:  

  • A heart attack 
  • A diagnosis of heart failure  
  • Heart surgery 

Besides helping make your heart and body stronger after a heart attack, this type of program can:2  

  • Help you build healthier habits, such as getting more physical activity, quitting smoking and eating better  
  • Improve your mood and help prevent depression  
  • Increase your energy and strength, so you can get back to doing normal, everyday activities 
  • Make it more likely that you take your medications to reduce your risk of future heart issues  
  • Prevent future illness or death from heart disease 
  • Relieve symptoms of heart problems, such as chest pain 

Cardiac rehab is very effective, says Michael Almaleh, MD. He’s the chief of cardiology and specialty care at Optum/Wellmed in San Antonio. It may help you “remain out of the hospital and potentially have fewer cardiovascular events in the future,” he says. Plus, it can even help you live a longer, healthier life.  

Cardiac rehab usually takes place in a hospital, skilled nursing facility, clinic or similar location.3 And if you’re hospitalized, you may begin a rehab program while you’re still in the hospital.  

If you can’t get to a cardiac rehab center, your Optum care team might even be able to offer you at-home therapy.3 As long as you have a referral from your doctor or specialist, most insurance plans cover cardiac rehab. That includes Original Medicare, Medicare Advantage and Medicaid.4  

Who is on a cardiac rehab team?  

Your primary care physician and cardiologist will be the first two people on your care team. They’re the ones who know your personal health needs best.  

In addition to them, your team might include:3  

  • Dietitian (they’ll help you figure out a heart-healthy eating plan) 
  • Nurse (they’ll provide support to you and your doctor/specialist) 
  • Physical therapist (they’ll help you improve the way you move and manage pain) 
  • Occupational therapist (they’ll evaluate and help you get back to doing normal, everyday activities) 
  • Exercise specialist (they’ll help you with your exercise program) 

Mental health specialists also play an important role. They can provide counseling to help relieve stress and improve your mental health. That’s because you may be more likely to be depressed after a heart attack.2,3  

Each member of your team plays a role in improving your health. Your Optum care team will make sure that you have the right people in your corner.  

What is a typical cardiac rehab session like?  

The care team overseeing your rehab program will personalize it to your specific health needs.5 Your program may include a mix of education and training, emotional support and exercise. 

In fact, exercise is an important aspect of the program. A fitness expert will closely monitor your workout, which may look like this:3  

  • A 5-minute warm-up 
  • A 20-minute aerobic workout (that may be any type of repetitive movement that increases your heart rate) 
  • A 5- to 15-minute cooldown 

You may also do some light weightlifting or use weight machines as part of your workout.3  

Is cardiac rehab safe for my heart?  

It’s normal to worry about the exercise portion. Some older adults may feel that they can’t keep up. And unfortunately, for some, that also means that they might stop going to cardiac rehab altogether.2 You might worry that a chronic condition, such as arthritis, will make it more difficult or painful to exercise. 

If you’re concerned, talk to your care team. And remind yourself that cardiac rehab is helping you get better. One of the main goals of rehab is to improve your strength and mobility so that you can exercise and take part in daily activities.2  

And you won’t be doing any of this by yourself. While you exercise, your care team will be there to monitor your heart rate to see how your body is handling the workout.3 You can ask them questions during and after each session. They’ll be a great source of encouragement too. 

Need help putting together the right care team to help you meet your health goals? That starts with finding the right doctor. Find an Optum doctor

How long will I be in cardiac rehab?

Cardiac rehab programs can last anywhere from two to eight months.2 It’s typically broken into 36 sessions, each about an hour.4, 7 But your program may be longer or shorter, depending on your specific health needs. A major factor could be the severity of your heart condition.3  

For instance, if you had a lengthier hospital stay after your heart attack, you might need to stay in rehab longer. Your Optum care team will help create a plan that works for you.  

Something to keep in mind: Not every doctor or specialist will refer you to one of these programs. “A large percentage of patients that are great candidates for cardiac rehab are never referred for one,” says Dr. Almaleh. If your doctor doesn’t bring it up first, ask them about it, he adds. 

One thing you can count on? Your Optum care team will create a personalized plan for you and make sure that you’re on the road to recovery. That’s the Optum way. 


  1. Mayo Clinic. Heart attack. Last reviewed October 9, 2023. Accessed January 3, 2024. 
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How cardiac rehabilitation can help heal your heart. Last reviewed September 12, 2022. Accessed January 3, 2024.  
  3. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Cardiac rehabilitation. Last reviewed February 23, 2022. Accessed January 3, 2024. 
  4. Cleveland Clinic. Cardiac rehab. Last reviewed April 28, 2023. Accessed January 3, 2024. 
  5. National Library of Medicine: StatPearls. Cardiac rehabilitation. Last updated June 4, 2023. Accessed January 3, 2024. 
  6. Mayo Clinic. Cardiac rehabilitation. Last reviewed March 21, 2023. Accessed January 3, 2024. 
  7. Million Hearts. Cardiac rehabilitation. Last reviewed July 10, 2023. Accessed January 3, 2024. 

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