How to Exercise After a Heart Bypass

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Heart bypass surgery is the most common type of heart surgery in the United States, according to the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston. The procedure reroutes or “bypasses” blood around blocked arteries to improve blood flow and oxygen to the heart. Exercise is an important component of recovery from heart bypass surgery. Experts recommend the following steps to exercise safely and return to an active lifestyle as quickly as possible.

Steps

Step 1

Start moving early. While still in the hospital, you’ll be encouraged to do light supervised exercise. The Texas Heart Institute says that you can expect to be in the hospital for about a week, with the first one to three days in the intensive care unit. “After leaving intensive care, the hospital staff will help you start walking up and down the halls to improve your circulation,” says Lawrence Horwitz, M.D., a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

Step 2

Begin cardiac rehabilitation. After leaving the hospital, most heart bypass patients are enrolled in a physician-supervised program of cardiac rehabilitation, says Dr. Horowitz. This rehab will include supervised and closely monitored exercise. The goals of cardiac rehab are to help you regain strength after the bypass operation, prevent your condition from worsening and reduce your risk of future health problems, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Step 3

Walk, walk, walk. The Society of Thoracic Surgeons, or STS, states that walking is the best form of exercise after a heart bypass because it increases circulation throughout the body and to the heart muscle. About a week after surgery, you should be well enough to get outdoors for walking, says Horowitz. Walk at your own pace and increase the speed and distance gradually. If the outdoor temperature is lower than 40 degrees or higher that 80 degrees, the STS suggests taking your walk to an indoor shopping mall.

Step 4

Climb stairs. You’ve probably already started gingerly maneuvering steps to get around and function in your daily life. Unless your doctor tells you differently, you should add stair climbing to your exercise routine a few weeks after surgery, says Horwitz. Begin by climbing small-height steps and gradually move to larger ones. When using the handrail, don’t pull yourself up with your arms. Instead, you should use your legs to move your body up the steps, says the STS.

Step 5

Avoid lifting anything heavy. Picking up anything heavier than 10 pounds will be strongly discouraged by your medical team for the first six weeks after surgery. This includes carrying children, groceries, suitcases, mowing the lawn and moving furniture, notes the STS.

Step 6

Add light aerobics, housework and gardening about six weeks after surgery. You may want to sign up for a low-impact aerobics class, says Horwitz. The STS states that heavy housework, such as vacuuming and doing laundry, and moderately strenuous gardening are fine now. Additionally, walking your dog on a leash is good exercise at this point in your recovery.

Step 7

Resume normal activities. About three months after your heart bypass operation, most types of exercise will be allowed, according to the STS. With your doctor’s ok, you will be able to participate in sports and recreational activities such as soccer, football, baseball, tennis, swimming, golf and motorcycle riding. Heavy housework and strenuous gardening, like shoveling and digging, will also be allowed, says the STS. Increase all activities gradually until you feel strong enough to return to a normal, active lifestyle.

Things You'll Need

  • Exercise clothes

  • Gym membership (optional)

Tip

Follow the instructions from your doctor and physical therapist. The closer you adhere to their instructions about how to exercise, the faster you’ll recover and the better you’ll feel following your heart bypass, says Horwitz

Balance physical activity with plenty of rest. You may need to take naps during the day for the first few weeks after your heart bypass. Rest often during exercise if you feel tired.

Warning

Stop exercising if you experience shortness of breath, dizziness, leg cramping, unusual fatigue or chest pain, warns the STS. Notify your doctor if these symptoms continue.

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