It’s common for people who’ve survived a heart attack to separate their lives into two chapters: before the heart attack and after the heart attack. “Having a heart attack—even if you have normal heart muscle function afterward—is a life-changing experience for a patient,” says Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director at NYU Langone Health, Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health.
Many heart attack survivors treat the event as a catalyst to make important heart-healthy lifestyle changes that can prevent a second attack. “That’s the moment where a patient is willing to hear about not smoking anymore, not drinking anymore, leading a more healthy lifestyle,” says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center. But even if you feel motivated to start exercising more … is it safe to do so?
How quickly you can resume activity after a heart attack depends on a few factors, according to Dr. Weisfelner Bloom. Your doctor will make recommendations for you based on your personal risk factors, the severity of the heart attack, and the extent of the damage to the heart.
The Benefits of Cardiac Rehabilitation
Your first step after a heart attack is likely something called cardiac rehabilitation. This is a medically supervised program that focuses on exercise, nutrition, and stress management, and it’s covered by most insurance plans.
Around 20 percent of heart attack survivors have a second attack within the following five years, according to the American Heart Association. Programs like cardiac rehab can help reduce that risk. In fact, a 2015 study found that the more sessions of cardiac rehab a patient attended, the more likely they were to stick to treatments and avoid having another heart attack.
In addition to improving the physical health of your heart, cardiac rehab can also make you feel more in control of your heart health. “That helps relieve some of the anxiety,” says Dr. Goldberg.
Exercising After a Heart Attack
After a heart attack, it might seem tempting to avoid working your heart and skip your workouts, go on shorter walks with your dog, or take the elevator instead of the stairs. It may sound counterintuitive, but exercise is encouraged post-heart attack. “It’s actually part of the remedy because it will make your heart stronger again,” says Joan Pagano, exercise physiologist in New York City.
Heart attacks can happen to people from all ends of the activity level spectrum, and cardiac rehab can meet you where you are and help you get moving again.
Many patients find cardiac rehab helpful and supportive, especially when it comes to exercising. “I had to slowly just start increasing my activity level,” says Dawn Blatt, a heart attack survivor. “Cardiac rehab was really helpful to see how far I could push myself.” Learn more about exercise after a heart attack here.
Sex Life After a Heart Attack
The risk of having a heart attack during sexual activity is pretty low. The exertion on your heart only occurs during orgasm, according to Harvard Medical School, which (for better or worse) only lasts a few seconds.
“A lot of my patients ask, ‘Well, when is it okay for me to go back to a normal sex life?’” says Rachel Bond, MD, cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital. “Typically, after a heart attack, I say that they should follow up with their doctor about one to two weeks after.”
After a heart attack, your doctor may consider a few things. For example, if you can pass a stress test without experiencing angina, sex is probably safe for you. (Learn more about how a stress test works and what angina is.)
Put another way, “having sex is equivalent to climbing two flights of stairs,” says Dr. Goldberg. “If you can do that, you can probably have sex.”
Other Activities to Be Cautious of After a Heart Attack
Returning to work, playing with kids or grandkids, driving, and resuming hobbies can all carry some risks after a heart attack. Overall, the rule of thumb is to check with your doc first.
Many patients return to work as early as two weeks after having a heart attack, according to AHA. Some may take closer to three months, and others may change careers to something a little easier on their heart.
Another common concern is driving since it may pose a safety hazard. “Once you see the doctor [and] you feel back to how you were before the heart attack, we say it’s safe for you to go back to driving again,” says Dr. Bond.
Emotional Recovery After a Heart Attack
As you think about returning to your everyday activities, don’t forget to nurture your mental health as well. Feeling stressed or depressed after a heart attack is very normal.
“We know that treating stress, anxiety, and depression [for someone] who’s had a recent heart attack helps improve their ability to go out and engage with their family,” says Dr. Goldberg, “as well as return to exercise.” (Check out how heart attack survivor Bob Harper prioritizes stress management.)
“You should take it slow; you should really listen to your doctors,” says Dr. Weisfelner Bloom. “You will get back to your regular life in most cases, but you just have to be mindful about how quickly or how slowly to do that.”