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What To Expect When Starting Cardiac Rehabilitation

Your doctor may refer you to cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) during an office visit or while you're in the hospital recovering from a heart attack or heart surgery. If your doctor doesn't mention it, ask him or her whether cardiac rehab might benefit you.

Rehab activities will vary depending on your condition. If you're recovering from major heart surgery, rehab will likely start with a member of the rehab team helping you sit up in a chair or take a few steps.

You'll work on range-of-motion exercises, such as moving your fingers, hands, arms, legs, and feet. Over time, you'll increase your activity level.

Once you leave the hospital, rehab will continue in a rehab center. The rehab center might be part of the hospital or located elsewhere.

Try to find a center close to home that offers services at a convenient time. If no centers are near your home, or if it's too hard to get to them, ask your doctor about home-based rehab.

For the first 2–3 months, you'll go to rehab regularly to learn how to reduce risk factors and start an exercise program. After that, your rehab team may recommend less frequent visits.

Overall, you may work with the rehab team for 3 months or longer. The length of time you continue cardiac rehab depends on your situation.

Health Assessment

Before you start cardiac rehab, your rehab team will assess your health. This includes taking your medical history and doing a physical exam and tests.

Medical History

A doctor or nurse will ask you about previous heart problems, heart surgery, and any heart-related symptoms you have. He or she also will ask whether you've had medical procedures or other health problems (such as diabetes or kidney disease).

The doctor or nurse may ask:

  • Whether your family has a history of heart disease.
  • What medicines you take, including over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements (such as vitamins and herbal remedies). Describe how much, how often, and when you take each medicine.
  • Whether you smoke and how much.
  • How you check your blood sugar level, and how often you do it (if you have diabetes).
  • Whether you've ever had hypoglycemia (HI-po-gli-SE-me-ah), which is low blood sugar. This condition can occur in people who take medicine to control their blood sugar levels.

Your answers to these questions will help your rehab team assess your quality of life and well-being.

Physical Exam

A doctor or nurse will do a physical exam to check your overall health, including your heart rate, blood pressure, reflexes, and breathing.


Your doctor might recommend tests to check your heart.

An EKG (electrocardiogram) is a simple test that detects and records your heart's electrical activity. The test shows how fast your heart is beating and its rhythm (steady or irregular). An EKG also shows the strength and timing of electrical signals as they pass through your heart.

An exercise test on a treadmill or stationary bike is often done before starting cardiac rehab to measure your fitness level and determine whether you can handle an exercise program. Sometimes cardiac imaging tests may be ordered to provide additional information on your heart’s structure and function.

You also might have tests to measure your cholesterol and blood sugar levels. If you have diabetes, staff will do an HbA1C test to check your blood sugar control. This test shows how well your diabetes has been managed over time.

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Last Updated: December 24, 2013