Cardiac rehab: more than just a gym

Most people hope to never need a cardiologist. The reality is that most of us will require a cardiologist in our lifetime, as cardiovascular disease (CVD) will affect one in two men and one in three women.

Cardiovascular disease includes:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Heart failure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Diseases of the aorta (aneurysms and dissection)
  • Congenital cardiac abnormalities

CVD is the number one cause of death in the U.S. It’s responsible for more deaths than the next four leading causes of death combined. While prevention is the best strategy for optimal health, many people aren’t concerned about prevention until after they’ve experienced a cardiac event.

This is where cardiac rehabilitation comes into play.

Cardiac rehab is a comprehensive lifestyle modification program that is based on exercise. It’s not just “going to the gym” — although that’s a component. It’s also about education, nutrition, and long-term change. A comprehensive cardiac rehab program works with individuals to address his or her unique risk factors for heart disease, and helps to reduce those health risks in a safe, supportive environment.

Following a cardiac event, cardiac rehab is prescribed for most people. Insurance will often cover the cost of an initial cardiac rehab program when one of the following events or conditions has occurred in the past year:

  • Heart attack
  • Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI or stent procedure)
  • Cardiac bypass surgery
  • Heart valve replacement
  • Heart transplant
  • Stable angina (chest pain due to low blood flow)
  • Heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (EF <35%)

The goal of early cardiac rehab is to educate and transition people into a lifelong program of activity and healthy living. A typical cardiac rehab program is individualized to each participant, and lasts about 12–18 weeks, with participants attending two or three times weekly. This outpatient program is intended to continue long after the initial cardiac rehab program ends.

The program can also be tailored further to accommodate special needs. Erlanger Health System’s cardiac rehab program includes:

  • An exercise prescription that is adjusted throughout the program
  • Assessment of individual risk factors
  • Education regarding uncontrolled risk factors
  • Dietary assessment
  • Guidance by a dietician
  • Evaluation of blood pressure, heart rate, and symptoms during exercise

Individuals who attend cardiac rehab can expect benefits like improved blood pressure, cholesterol, exercise capacity, reduced depression, and overall quality of life. Most importantly, those who attend are about 25% more likely to be alive in five years, and less likely to be admitted to the hospital with a cardiovascular problem.

Cardiac rehab programs are staffed by a variety of medical personnel including nurses, exercise physiologists, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, and dieticians, as well a medical director who is a physician. For many people suffering a first cardiac event, the thought of exercise can be very scary.  But, with our topnotch health care team monitoring during activity, this can lessen the anxiety – and can even become fun!

The less scientific part of cardiac rehab involves the social connections staff and participants make, and the sense of community that is evident at most cardiac rehab centers. The team at the Chattanooga Lifestyle Center has been doing cardiac rehab for over 25 years. And, there are patients who have been attending for almost the entire time!

The center always hosts festivities to motivate patients while encouraging them to improve their health. It may involve dressing up in red to support the “Go Red” campaign for improving women’s cardiovascular health, or a contest involving flying pigs that “move” when you achieve certain health metrics — and it’s always fun.

Overall, cardiac rehab is the place where health, wellness, nutrition, stress management, and happiness all come together. This is where you go to get your life back!

Alison L. Bailey, M.D. is a cardiologist with UT Erlanger Cardiology. She has been involved with cardiac rehab programs formally for many years, and now serves as the Director of Cardiac Rehab. For more information, or to schedule an appointment, please call: 423-778-2564, or visit us at