Heart attack: How diet, exercise, and friends can help recovery

  • Experts say healthy lifestyle choices can help quality of life in the years following a heart attack.
  • Being active, even for short periods, as well as a healthy diet and stress reduction can help.
  • Having a support system can also help decrease your recovery time.

Having a heart attack doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t have a productive and satisfying life in the years following the event.

According to a self-reported survey completed in Denmark and published in the journal JAMA Cardiology, people who have had a heart attack reported a high quality of life 20 years after their incident.

Researchers said the results are comparable to the general Danish population.

The researchers examined the answer provided by 2,552 people who survived a heart attack and completed a self-reported survey on their quality of life.

The researchers reported that long-term health quality of life was consistently high, even 20 years after a cardiac event. The researchers say the findings suggest the need for resources to improve survival rates after a heart attack.

“I find it to be a really interesting study, and in a nutshell, what it’s doing is — it’s looking at patients who are survivors of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest who respond to survey tools to look at quality of life. And what they found is that of the people who respond to the survey, their long-term quality of life metrics was similar to the general population,” said Dr. Lawrence Phillips, the director of outpatient cardiology at NYU Langone Heart and an associate professor in the Department of Medicine in the Leon H. Charney Division of Cardiology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York.

“And so, the big question that it answers is, as an overarching theme, how do patients do once they survive an out of hospital cardiac arrest? Is their quality of life as a total group stunted or like the general population? And it showed that it was similar to the general population,” Phillips, who was not part of the study, told Medical News Today.

“The second interesting thing is that they’re able to make some baseline comparisons to people who did not respond to the surveys versus those who did respond to surveys and found that the general patient mix was similar,” Phillips added. “But we don’t know more details about those people. And so the question that arises for me is if we can bring more people to the responder category and think of that as an ability to a higher quality of life, can we move that needle, and can we have more people with an allocation of resources, have a good quality of life long term since we see from this study that it is possible.”

Heart attacks in the United States

In the United States, the overall rate of death from heart attack fell from about 87 deaths per 100,000 people in 1999 to about 38 deaths per 100,000 people in 2020, according to the American College of Cardiology.

The college attributes this decrease to increased public awareness of cardiovascular risk factors, such as smoking and obesity, and the need for better self-care.

Around 20% of heart attack patients 45 and older will have at least one subsequent heart attack within five years, according to the American Heart Association.

Experts say heart-healthy lifestyle changes can reduce that risk and improve the long-term outlook for survivors.

“A heart attack can serve as an opportunity for survivors to improve their quality of life,” Tatiana Ridley, a health coach, holistic nutritionist, and yoga teacher at Healthylicious Bliss who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today.

The importance of exercise after a heart attack

“Research in the Journal of the American Heart Association found being active for even short periods during the day within the year following a heart attack will lower the chances of dying in the immediate years afterward — up to 71% lower risk, in fact,” said Rachel MacPherson, CPT, CSCS, a pain-free performance specialist and certified nutrition coach who was not involved in the study.

“If you have never exercised but have had a cardiac arrest, then starting slow is particularly vital,” MacPherson told Medical News Today. “Always check with your healthcare provider and ask about a referral to cardiac rehabilitation sessions to be closely monitored when you exercise. Activities such as walking, cycling, gardening, golf, swimming, and more can become part of your normal activity once you are fully cleared to do so. Find something you enjoy and will stick to.”

MacPherson suggests walking as an excellent first step. Start with about 5 minutes, build up to 10 minutes, and then up to 30 minutes over several weeks. Riding a stationary bike can also work, she noted.

“Lifting weights can help with improving longevity and health. Ten repetitions with light weights is a good way to start,” said McPherson. “As your doctor clears you, increase your repetitions.”

Modifying your diet for heart health

After a heart attack, it is essential to choose healthy meals and snacks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The recommendations include:

  • Eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Limiting processed foods
  • Limiting your sodium
  • Lowering sugar consumption

Alcohol can raise your blood pressure. The CDC suggests no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one for women.

“One of the best diets to follow is the anti-inflammatory diet created by Dr. Andrew Weil,” Tatiana said. “Based on the Mediterranean diet, it adds some foods such as dark chocolate and green tea. It’s made up of a variety of unprocessed, fresh, whole foods (a whole food is a one-ingredient food), including antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, brown or wild rice, lean proteins like organic chicken, turkey and eggs, healthy carbs like whole grains, healthy fats like olive oil and avocado oil, nuts and seeds including hemp seeds and flax seeds, fish like wild salmon, tuna and sardines, spices like turmeric and cinnamon, green and oolong tea, and dark chocolate.”

How reducing stress helps

Stress can contribute to cardiovascular disease, according to the American Heart Association.

It can also lead to high blood pressure and pose a heart attack or stroke risk.

“Yoga can help by lowering stress levels by relaxing your body and mind through deep breathing, meditation, movement, and relaxation,” Ridley said. “Emotional stress can activate your body’s fight-or-flight response, triggering a rise in heart rate, blood pressure, and the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which narrow your arteries and increase blood pressure. Yoga helps to activate your body’s rest-and-digest response, triggering your body to release endorphins and other feel-good hormones, which can help lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol, blood glucose levels, and heart rate. However, it’s important to note that certain types of yoga are better than others. For example, restorative and chair yoga are safer than hot yoga.”

Hot yoga typically occurs in warm and heated studios to provide a more intense workout.

Why support systems are vital

Recovering from a heart attack can be daunting.

Experts say it can help to have the support of family and friends.

According to the Heart and Stroke Association of Canada, a good support system can help:

  • Shorten the time you need in the hospital and improve recovery.
  • Help you take medication correctly and make healthy lifestyle changes.
  • Help you remember what your cardiologist or other healthcare providers have told you.
  • Get you using cardiac rehabilitation programs.
  • Reduce damage that stress can cause
  • Reduce symptoms of depression
  • Improve your quality of life.

“Lifestyle changes have to do with the adaptation to a new normal,” Phillips said. “And it’s what resources we put in place to help someone go from acute to long-term recovery. And so we know one significant thing is a support system. So people with a good support system, family, and friends have better long-term outcomes and quality of life.”

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