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On the coattails of both American Heart Month and the Go Red for women campaign by the American Heart Association to prioritize women and heart disease, it’s a good time to think about women, heart disease, and the benefit of exercise.

Heart disease doesn’t have to be the end of your exercise life, but rather a new beginning.

It was only until recently that heart disease was primarily thought of as a man’s disease. But in the past few years, studies have revealed that heart disease has passed cancer as the leading cause of death in women. A CDC report tracking heart disease in women over the past six years revealed that in 2009 the disease took the lives of 292,188 women, which is one in every four female deaths. About 5.8% of all white women, 7.6% of black women, and 5.6% of Mexican American women have coronary heart disease. Almost two-thirds (64%) of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms. Despite an increase in awareness, still only 54% of women recognize that heart disease is their number one killer. Even if you have no symptoms, you may still be at risk for heart disease.

So what are some of the more important points for women to focus on if diagnosed with heart disease? In my over 20 years of working in cardiac rehabilitation and 13 years for Ornish Lifestyle Medicine, I know that for women with a diagnosis of heart disease, exercise rehabilitation is of the utmost importance.

Exercise Is Equally Important For Women

Two of the best and most important reasons for women to attend cardiac rehab are safe exercise and social interaction. Rehab is the place to test your new “normal” through exercise in a controlled environment. You will work with medically trained staff to create a healthy exercise routine and workout with other patients who are also experiencing the same health challenges.

The staff will monitor your heart rhythm, blood pressure, exercise levels, and any symptoms you may have, so that you feel absolutely safe. They will also teach you different kinds of exercise and prescribe specific exercises to meet your needs and abilities. Soon enough, you’ll realize that heart disease doesn’t have to be the end of your exercise life, but rather a new beginning. The realization that you’re doing well and can resume your life after a diagnosis is an amazing motivator.

Social Support Is Paramount

I have witnessed that for women especially, social interaction with both the staff and other women in a similar situation attending rehab is particularly important. You’ll realize that you are not alone through connecting with other women of similar age and in a similar situation. This will not only boost your attendance to rehab, it will boost your self-esteem, energy, desire to be involved, and an overall sense of well-being.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association validated the important role of social and emotional support after a heart event. Research found that patients who had less social support didn’t recover as quickly after the heart event and up to one year later. Those with less support also showed significantly more symptoms of depression, poorer health, and a lower quality of life.

Even after you’ve finished the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program (Intensive Cardiac Rehabilitation) continued social support from friends, family, and co-workers is very important. This could include joining a local support group for heart patients through the American Heart Association. In certain cases, you may need more specific support such as one-on-one counseling if you find your new diagnosis has continued to challenge you longer than it should. Finding a counselor who specializes in medical treatment and recovery can go a long way.

Keep Exercise Fun

I tend to focus on more traditional approaches to exercise. Exercises like walking, swimming, cycling, and strength training contribute to improving your heart health. I also recommend looking into various programs such as yoga, Pilates, and dance because they also provide a social outlet. The key is to make sure that you enjoy the environment, the program, and think it’s fun. These factors, more than anything, will ensure that you attend.

Whether you are a spouse or a woman with heart disease, what made a positive difference in your recovery?

Contributed by

Phil Hardesty
Exercise Physiologist

Have a healthy, happy and fit week!!

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