Having a heart attack can be one of the most frightening experiences many people endure. The pain and fear in that moment, the worry of the unknown and the desperation to reevaluate your life are all difficult challenges to surmount.
Another tough climb that comes after suffering a heart attack is learning how to go back to your “normal” life. You worry that every twinge in your chest could be a sign of another heart attack. Could playing in the backyard with family spark another episode? What about your sex life – is it OK to be intimate with your spouse or partner again? You fear another heart attack is around the corner.
A heart attack is a scary and life-changing event, but it doesn’t mean life as you once knew it is over.
“After a heart attack, many people are afraid to exercise again,” says Dennis Kerrigan, Ph.D., a clinical exercise physiologist at Henry Ford Health. “When we see patients come into cardiac rehab, they often lack confidence to push themselves with exercise. However, it can be very gratifying to see how far patients can progress in just a few short weeks.”
Another concern patients have is if having sex is safe for their heart. But, Dr. Kerrigan says, in general, sex puts only moderate stress on the heart. For most individuals, if they can walk symptom-free at a moderate pace, they are healthy enough to resume intimacy.
How Long Can It Take To Feel “Normal” Again?
Depending on how active you were before the heart attack, the severity of the attack and how your body responded to it, recovery time varies from person to person, Dr. Kerrigan says.
“If a patient had open-heart or bypass surgery, it can take them up to a year to fully recover,” he says. “In these cases, it’s not so much the heart but that their bodies were cut open and need time to heal.”
For those who experienced a less traumatic heart attack or procedure, recovery time can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.
“It’s all about getting back to what you used to do, or sometimes even more,” Dr. Kerrigan says. “We encourage people to get back to doing 5Ks and exercising again if that’s what they were doing before.”
Talk to your doctor about reasonable expectations for your own recovery timeline, and what steps to take to get there.
What Can I Do To Prevent A Future Heart Attack?
It’s true that having a heart attack puts you at a greater risk for having another one. But by changing your lifestyle habits, you can lower your risk and re-strengthen your heart. Some best practices include:
- Eat healthy. Make mindful food choices to help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol. Try to avoid foods high in sodium, sugar and that are overly processed.
- Exercise regularly. Getting your heart pumping is a great way to build up heart muscles following a heart attack. Take it slow while working with your doctor to set achievable goals.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep is related to many of our body’s functions because it is when the body has time to rest and repair. In fact, lack of sleep is related to increased risk for a heart attack or stroke.
- Limit stress levels. Stress can be difficult to manage and what helps one person cope might not work for someone else. Try different self-soothing techniques to determine what works best for you.
It is also important to reevaluate behaviors that could have caused your heart attack in the first place. For example, even if you go to the gym a few days a week, if you spent the rest of the time sitting on the couch, you are putting yourself at an increased risk.
Start by incorporating small changes into your routine to help improve your heart health while boosting your confidence. Some ideas your might try:
- Go for a walk in the morning or after dinner.
- Take breaks at work to stretch and move around every 30 minutes.
- Make healthy food swaps.
“It’s not the end of your life just because you have heart disease,” Dr. Kerrigan says. “Having a heart attack can be viewed as a second chance to reevaluate what is most important to you and use it as an opportunity to make necessary lifestyle changes to improve your quality of life.”
Finally, if you have questions, be sure to talk to your cardiologist about them. They can provide advice for a recovery tailored to your unique health history and circumstances and offer resources for making those necessary healthy changes.
Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Kerrigan, a clinical exercise physiologist who sees patients and does exercise research trials at Henry Ford Hospital.