Injured, Now What?

Put Your Heart into It

By Tanya Davies

You had a heart attack, and your life changed in an instant. Now what? First, give yourself time to mend, both physically and emotionally. Once you have recovered from your heart attack and any necessary surgery, your health care professional will give you the green light to start a cardiovascular rehabilitation program.

The rehab won’t be easy, explains Gerilyn Danischewsky, a Certified Athletic Therapist and Cardiac Rehab Supervisor at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute at the University Health Network in Toronto. “When I first see a patient at the clinic I tell them that this is just the start of what can be a long, physical and emotional process.”

However, a rehabilitation program is one of the best actions you can take after having a heart attack. Research has shown that starting a cardiovascular rehab program, and completing as many sessions as possible, can reduce a person’s risk of another heart attack by 30 percent over five years. 

Just 40 years ago, the process for patients recovering from a heart attack was to “lie in bed and do nothing,” says Gerilyn. Now, health care professionals understand that people with heart disease need regular physical activity just like everyone else.

When can I start my rehab?

It depends on the type of medical intervention you had after your heart attack. “Patients who needed a simple stent can start their rehab 4-6 weeks after their surgery,” explains Gerilyn. “Patients who needed bypass surgery need more time to heal, so they wouldn’t start rehab until 8-12 weeks post-surgery.”

What does the rehab involve? 

Your rehab will be a medically supervised program that focuses on exercise training, learning about heart-healthy living and strategies to reduce stress. You will be working with a health care team that includes nurses, social workers, dieticians and sometimes Athletic Therapists. “Our role is to get you to a point where you can control your cardiovascular condition,” explains Gerilyn.

What type of exercises can I do?

Every program is different depending on your health, age and stage of recovery. However, your rehabilitation team will likely get you doing aerobic exercises, stretching and strengthening activities. Anything that gets your arms and legs moving is great for the heart, so activities like walking, bicycling, swimming or dancing.  Stretching and strengthening helps your muscles get back into shape. Don‘t worry that you won’t be able to do the activities – “most exercises need to be modified for cardiac patients,” says Gerilyn. “Lots of patients have never exercised before so even starting a walking program can lead to shin splints. So we work with them and adapt their activities.”

How long will I need to exercise for?

A cardiac rehab program is vitally important to recovery and length of the program will vary. And although your rehabilitation program will eventually end, that doesn’t mean that your exercising will. “We believe that cardiovascular conditions are chronic diseases,” says Gerilyn. “This means that these people are going to be exercising for the rest of their lives.” Your heart will thank you.

Contributing Athletic Therapist
Gerilyn Danischewsky


is a Cardiac Rehab Supervisor and Code Blue Leader at UHN Cardiac Rehab and Secondary Prevention Program, and a Certified Athletic Therapist.