5 Guidelines for Healthy Living After a Heart Attack

5 Guidelines for Healthy Living After a Heart Attack

August 31, 2021

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Iqbal Jafri, M.D.

After a heart attack, making healthy lifestyle changes can help you recover faster and reduce your chances of experiencing another cardiac event. However, without professional guidance and support, making lifestyle changes can be challenging — especially if you aren’t sure where to start.

Iqbal Jafri, M.D., Medical Director of Cardiac Rehabilitation at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, shares five guidelines for healthy living after a heart attack, including:

1. Exercise Guided by Cardiac Rehabilitation.

Medically-supervised exercise is one of the main components of cardiac rehabilitation – which can include a brief warm-up and stretch followed by aerobic exercises such as those performed on a treadmill, stationary bicycle or elliptical.

“Through supervised exercise, we work on risk factors to prevent or minimize future cardiac events including weight management, hypertension, diabetes and sedentary (inactive) lifestyles,” says Doreen Russo, BSN, RN, Clinical Supervisor of Cardiac/Pulmonary Rehabilitation at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute.

“We use equipment to keep us informed about each individual’s blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels along with continuous monitoring by an electrocardiogram (ECG) while you are exercising, ” adds Dr. Jafri. “This helps patients to feel safer if they are worried they might have another heart attack triggered by exercise.”

“Consult with your doctor to discuss exercise outside of a cardiac rehabilitation program,” shares Russo. It is typically advised to workout at least 30 minutes per day for three to five days a week with brisk walking, jogging, swimming or biking.

2. Quit smoking.

Research shows that quitting smoking can cut your risk of another heart attack in half. “It’s never too late to quit,” explains Russo. Some techniques may include:

  • Identifying your triggers
  • Thinking positive
  • Celebrating milestones of smoke-free time
  • Seeking professional support

Though quitting isn’t easy, Russo shares that your doctor can help you develop a more effective plan. “If necessary, your doctor should be able to refer you to a tobacco cessation specialist who can help you quit, too,” she adds.

3. Take medications as prescribed.

Medication management is a critical component after having suffered from a heart attack. Often, patient’s need medications to manage high blood pressure, high cholesterol and/or diabetes.

“It is important to bring an updated medication list with you to all physician visits,” says Russo.

4. Control stress.

Stress can contribute to the development of certain cardiovascular conditions, so controlling stress is essential after a heart attack with methods such as exercise, support and mental health care. “Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, which gives our patients mood-boosting and stress-relief benefits,” shares Russo.

Further, your health care team understands that a heart attack is a life-changing event. Patients may have fears or worries associated with their condition. Starting in an outpatient cardiac rehab program will help patients make the necessary lifestyle changes required to keep them healthy.

“Our patients often come in thinking, ‘Am I going to live or die?’, so it’s really important for them to hear from professionals and get treatment tailored to their needs,” says Dr. Jafri.

“If we don’t take care of our patients mentally, they can’t take care of themselves physically,” adds Russo.

5. Enhance diet.

When it comes to nutrition, Diane Weeks, a registered dietitian at JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute, says that the industry has moved away from a “don’t eat this” approach to help post-heart attack patients adopt healthier eating habits.

“We don’t just hand out a diet and say, ‘Eat this,’” comments Weeks. “We help our patients plan for different circumstances and can individualize our approach based on lifestyle, other household members, culture, health needs, preferences and other factors.”

Generally speaking, some heart-healthy foods include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Lean proteins (such as poultry)
  • Nuts, beans and legumes
  • Whole grains

Foods to avoid and/or significantly limit include:

  • Processed foods (such as frozen meals)
  • Fast food
  • Fried foods
  • “Junk” foods (such as potato chips)
  • Fatty butters
  • High sodium foods (such as canned goods)

In addition to focusing on quality, nutrient-rich foods, Weeks says that she also focuses on problem-solving.

“If I have a patient who lives in a household where not everyone is on board with the healthy eating plan — or isn’t the person who does the shopping or cooking — we make a plan to navigate that,” continues Weeks. “I also focus on helping people move forward after setbacks.”

By encouraging patients to follow these five guidelines, Dr. Jafri is confident that individuals can “look like totally different people” from their heart attack.

Next Steps & Resources


The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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