Before becoming a heart surgery patient, I thought I had physical activity down. My family is full of athletes and coaches, and I was a high school swimmer. After my valve replacement surgery and rehabilitation experiences, though, I realized that there’s always more to learn when it comes to caring for my heart. After all of these years, I’d been leaving out three crucial parts of exercise. Do you make these same common workout mistakes?
Forgetting your cool down
Whether you are a runner, a cardiovascular rehab graduate, or a member of a sports team, you’ve probably heard the importance of warm ups: the exercise precursor that prepares your muscles and blood vessels for harder work. But do you know how and why to cool down after that workout?
During exercise, your heart muscle works extra hard, and your heart rate and blood pressure increase accordingly to spread oxygen and nutrients through your body. When a workout ends abruptly, the heart and blood vessels have no time to re-adjust. In patients with heart disease, rapid changes to heart muscle action can trigger abnormal rhythms after a workout, and even healthy athletes experience dizziness from blood pressure changes when oxygen needs drop faster than blood vessels can shrink. Cool-down periods reduce the all-over body temperature and ease the muscles from forceful contractions to steady norms; all types of athletes benefit by avoiding muscle cramps and blood pooling in extremities.
So, how do you cool down safely? Start by tapering your last exercise for five to 10 minutes; for example, bike at 45 rpm on a flat surface instead of 70 rpm on inclines. Then, aim for a leisurely paced walk until your heart rate drops below 120 beats per minute or your cardiologist’s goal for you. The key to a successful cool down is to make a focused effort to relax gradually before returning to normal daily activities.
Not testing your heart rate monitor
Using a heart rate monitor is a quick way to check your cardiovascular exertion and look for rhythm problems during exercise. The most accurate version uses a chest strap to sense electrical pulse waves. To work correctly, the straps should be damp and should fit snugly. Using gel or water and a tight fit offers the lowest risk of missed beats or interference from clothing or arm movement. Incorrect readings aren’t just from how the strap fits, though. Any monitor that uses electrical sensors risk interference from other people’s monitors or even from monitors on gym equipment. To avoid problems like this, don’t use the equipment monitor while wearing your own, remember to check your monitor’s batteries, and compare its readout with an old-fashioned carotid or radial pulse measurement periodically.
Hydrating with the wrong fluids
The importance of fluids during exercise — especially for patients with heart disease — cannot be overemphasized. Our blood vessels are in constant action to maintain oxygen, fluid, and nutrient delivery around the body. When fluids are low, the heart pumps harder to make those deliveries. Fluid loss of about 3 liters per day is typical; during one hour of exercise, the body loses an additional quart or more, so a simple action like drinking can have very positive cardiac effects.
So what should you drink, and how much? Unless you are an endurance athlete, water is best. In typical cardiovascular workouts, the sodium losses in sweat are replenished by daily food intake. If you have a heart condition, sports drinks can actually be harmful: the caffeine and salt content can increase blood pressure and fluid retention.
For exercise that lasts 45 to 60 minutes, the American Council on Fitness recommends drinking water before, during, and after your workout. Up to 20 ounces two hours before and another 8 ounces a half hour before and after core exercises are good goals. During activity, 10 ounces every 20 minutes protects your heart muscle and vessels from overexertion.
Exercising the right way—for fun or for heart health—takes a little extra attention. As a heart patient myself, I admit to forgetting my heart rate monitor or water bottle in a rushed morning or to bolting from the gym to get to the office sometimes. But I feel healthier, stronger, and safer when I remember to give exercise as much attention as other parts of my post-op life.
Nicole Van Hoey, PharmD, is a freelance writer and editor for consumer and professional health publications. She underwent open heart surgery in August 2016 and writes about the experience, including cardiac rehab, for HealthCentral. She can be found on Twitter @VHMedComm and writing about family life after heart surgery at Bloglovin’.