Having a heart attack is terrifying, but so is the standard recommendation from the medical community for survivors: strenuous exercise.
It’s been proven that a healthy diet and regular exercise can not only ward off a first heart attack, but help prevent a second one. Lack of exercise following a heart attack increases the risk of death by 18%.
But many people who have suffered a heart attack fear that physical exertion will trigger another one, so they resist their physicians’ efforts to steer them into rehabilitation programs that include treadmill workouts several times a week.
Your cardiologists at The Medical Group of South Florida understand this fear, but sometimes despite our best efforts to allay our patients’ concerns, we encounter resistance to any form of aerobic exercise. This mind-set is so common, in fact, that statistically nearly two-thirds of those who have survived a heart attack simply refuse to participate in cardiac rehab.
Now comes word of a small study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association which shows that the slow, gentle movements of tai chi are not only beneficial in maintaining heart health, but are less intimidating to those who’ve had a heart attack.
Dr. Elena Salmoirago-Blotcher gathered a group of 29 heart attack survivors who had declined to participate in traditional cardiac rehabilitation and enrolled them in a six-month tai chi program. Of the original 29 male and female participants, 25 completed the program, and went on to more confidently increase their physical activity in other areas.
“Someone said, ‘[After doing tai chi] I got back on my bike; I felt like I could do it again—things that I was doing before my heart attack and then I got scared, [but tai chi] gave me the confidence to do it again,’ ” Salmoirago-Blotcher told CBS News.
“Tai chi is an interesting, promising exercise option,” she said to Time Magazine. “I think based on what we found, it’s a reasonable and safe step to offer tai chi within cardiac rehab.” She explained that the non-striving, non-goal basis of the practice removes the pressure to perform. It is also easily customized to be more or less strenuous, and can be performed both in a hospital setting as well as at home.
For those unfamiliar with the practice, tai chi employs a series of fluid, low-impact movements and breathing exercises that mimic slow-motion dance routines. Originally developed as a martial art over a thousand years ago, it has evolved into purely a health regimen in this country.
Other studies have demonstrated the cardiac benefits of tai chi, including reducing levels of total cholesterol and triglycerides, increasing levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and slowing the heart rate.
The New York Times reported last year that “[t]here is also quite a bit of evidence to suggest the practice can improve blood pressure. Harvard doctors who conducted a systematic review of the medical literature in 2008 found that 22 of 26 studies reported reductions in blood pressure among participants who practiced tai chi.”
It also reported on one 1996 trial that randomly assigned 126 heart attack survivors to either tai chi classes, an aerobic exercise regimen, or a non-exercise support group for eight weeks. The study found improvements in both diastolic and systolic blood pressure (the top and bottom numbers) only in the tai chi group. It also found that participants were more likely to stick with the tai chi program over time, which supports Salmoirago-Blotcher’s findings.
“I have never in any other exercise had something that was both energizing and relaxing at the same time,” a 73-year-old adherent, Susan Werbin, told CBS.
Whatever your level of fitness or heart health, please do check with us before embarking on any new fitness regime. But if you’re looking for a new, less demanding approach to cardiac health, you might want to try tai chi.