By Jeff Harr

Cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation programs were originally developed to help people recover from major life altering health problems. Cardiac rehab was developed for those people who had heart attacks, coronary artery bypass surgery, heart valve surgery, or coronary artery stenting. Pulmonary rehab was developed to help those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, chronic bronchitis, asthma, pulmonary fibrosis or lung cancer.

Jeff Harr, RCEP

Cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation programs are typically a combination of monitored, supervised exercise and education regarding disease management. Exercise sessions are designed to improve strength and fitness and are individualized according to the patient’s level of fitness. Education is given about such topics as anatomy, physiology, diet, medications and stress management just to name a few. Participants attend programs three days per week to get the maximum benefit. Significant others are encouraged to attend education sessions with patients for further support.

Even though these programs were initially developed to help with recovery, today there is much interest in the other benefits that occur for people who participate in these programs. Recent research suggests that participants not only recover and return to normal productive lives, but that rehabilitation may also help prevent future events and increase longevity.

Unfortunately not all eligible patients participate in these very worthwhile programs. Studies show that currently only about 20 to 30% of eligible patients participate in cardiac rehab programs. The low cardiac rehabilitation participation rate is discouraging in light of the considerable evidence that supports the effectiveness of cardiac rehabilitation. Some folks don’t know that the programs exist or what they can do while others think they can “go it alone” or are fearful about exercising after a heart attack. One of the great benefits of participating in a formal program is getting the support of the staff, as well as the other participants, to help make positive life changes in diet and exercise. The camaraderie that is provided by the programs should not be underestimated in the effect it has to help people do more and feel better.

In a study published in the journal Circulation, patients who participated in cardiac rehab actually decreased their chance of dying. Patients who completed the full program showed the most benefit by reducing their death rates by 50% over those who only did one session of cardiac rehab.

In another study from Canada released last year, participants attended 12 weeks of rehabilitation. The results showed that the higher a person’s level of fitness, the lower the risk of death over the next 15 years. “If you are more fit, you are less likely to die,” says researcher Dr. Billie-Jean Martin.

For pulmonary rehabilitation, research shows similar benefits. A recent study from the United Kingdom compared folks who had completed a pulmonary rehab program to similar people who didn’t complete a pulmonary rehab, and their survival rate was looked at over an 11 year period. The researchers concluded that increasing a person’s ability to exercise helped patients live longer and states “if patients can be encouraged to exercise, for some it may literally be a matter of life and death.”

It is important for people with these chronic diseases to get the education to manage their disease. They also need to increase their fitness levels as high as possible for their age and health condition. Structured and supervised cardiac or pulmonary rehab programs can help in both of these areas and can help you live a longer, healthier life.

Jeff Harr, RCEP is a certified exercise physiologist and the coordinator for Brattleboro Memorial Hospital’s nationally certified Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation programs. Jeff can be reached at 802-257-8331.