Types of Exercise

Doctors recommend two types of exercise for people who've had a heart attack: aerobic cardiovascular exercise and resistance (strength) training. However, any heavy lifting should be avoided during the recovery period.

Aerobic cardiovascular exercise. Aerobic exercise includes activities such as

  • walking,
  • jogging,
  • cycling,
  • cross-country skiing,
  • rowing and
  • swimming.

Your doctor and the cardiac rehabilitation staff will determine the exact type and intensity of exercise you should perform. Although your initial workouts will likely be at a low intensity level and later ones likely will be more intense, a typical workout may include the following:

  • about 10 minutes of warmup such as stretching or light walking, jogging or cycling
  • 20 to 30 minutes of more intense cardiovascular exercise
  • five minutes of cool-down, with activities similar to the warm-up

Doctors usually recommend that patients exercise at least three times a week. To see whether you're exercising with the correct intensity, you may need to take your pulse or use a heart-rate monitor before, during and after your workout. The cardiac rehabilitation staff may ask that you report these numbers to them when you check in. If your heart rate is not in the recommended range, you can modify the intensity of your program. A less-intense exercise program may be more appropriate if you are severely ill, disabled or frail; have a pacemaker; or take beta-blockers.

Resistance training. Resistance training (weight lifting or the use of resistance machines or bands) should be introduced slowly as your health improves. Your doctor may ask you to periodically include resistance-training exercise to help minimize muscle loss.

Ask your doctor or the cardiac rehabilitation staff what amount of weight or resistance to begin with. You will likely start with just a few repetitions and gradually build up to three sets of 12 repetitions, performed two to three times weekly. You may be asked to increase the amount of weight or resistance you use over time.

How Safe Is Exercise after Heart Attack?

If you follow your doctor's prescription for exercise, physical activity as part of a cardiac rehabilitation program is safe. But you should never exercise to the point of chest pain or angina. If you experience chest pain, dizziness, nausea, unusual shortness of breath or irregular heartbeat, stop exercising—and if they do not immediately resolve, seek medical attention. Your exercise program or the medications you are taking may then have to be adjusted.

Publication Review By: Gary Gerstenblith, M.D., and Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D.

Published: 03 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 15 Jan 2015