Cardiac Rehabilitation, It’s Not What You Think

I have to admit to something that perhaps a lot of people thought, or do think, about the idea of weekly rehabilitation sessions, particularly of cardiac rehabilitation, that they are filled with older people sitting around drinking tea or coffee, crunching biscuits and chatting. Plus, if there is exercise involved, that they are stretching the five minutes away doing the barest minimum of what someone would term exercise.

Completely wrong. I’ve had my assessment and been to my first weekly session and already I can throw that misconception out the window and challenge anyone who thinks otherwise.

While I might have been slightly embarrassed to admit to going to a session like this before, thinking I was too young and because I thought it was everything above, after just one session I can say that there is no such embarrassment about it now, and that I can quite proudly say I go to cardiac rehabilitation.

It isn’t all old people and cups of tea, in fact there’s no tea and biscuits at all. In some locations you may even have to bring our own water, although where my sessions are we thankfully have a water fountain outside the hall.

Yes, I was the youngest there, but there were varying ages, varying people with different backgrounds, different lives, and having had different operations. It was an interesting mix. The biggest surprise though is the exercise, this isn’t any light and gentle stretching, although we do have warm-ups and cool-downs these are more than you would expect and go on for ages. After that we do circuit training.

During the first loop of the circuits, because there are two loops of eight stations with each station comprising of a period of one and a half minutes, I had my top off and that was in a cold gym hall with very cold weather outside. Come the second loop I was sweating, and I mean really sweating.

Of course I can’t compare it to sweating when I was running, my body has to build up to that again. I’ve had open heart surgery and that does tend to knock your entire body back somewhat.

For each station on the circuit there are three different levels of exercise. They start the newcomers off on the lowest one and after each loop gauge their performance along with how they feel. I was stepped up to the middle level for the second loop and I can see myself hitting the top level either the next session or the one after that. That doesn’t mean it was easy though.

Now let’s see if I can remember each of the stations, bear in mind I’m having difficulties with memory at the moment and these are just one of the three options at each. There was the chair stand, where you stand up and sit down again. Oh that might sound easy to you but in reality that became very tiring and put a strain on the thighs and knees. Next was the heel step where you extend each leg in turn out in front of you, often after operations like this balance can be affected. Backwards lunges were next followed by something I forget, then squats. Then there were steps and finally side steps, again another that sounds easy but try it after having an operation on your heart.

I grant you it isn’t circuits like you might be used to at a modern fitness boot camp or the gym, but it was surprisingly tough. I used to cycle almost every workday, run 10k at the weekend, 12k on a Friday in and out of work, before that I used to go weight training for hours at a time three times a week, and I mean weight training till I was dizzy and couldn’t stand, and the rehabilitation didn’t feel like light exercise at all.

I know that most of that is because I’ve not used my muscles properly for months and that there’s been no exercise for some time. I have had my chest cracked open and been on heart and lung bypass. These facts couple with my post-operative state of mind and preconceptions really made me think these sessions would be much lighter than they are, however that wasn’t a bunch of eighty year olds sitting around stretching, drinking tea and chatting.

Once the hour and a half of exercise was up it was time to get the chairs in a semi-circle and chat about our goals. I had none set as yet so it was down to the people who weren’t new to discuss what they’d promised they could do or try to do last week and how well they had achieved them. Some had done most, some little, a few none, but the weather was horrendous and that caused everyone problems. After the review there was a chat about various other issues that were affecting us all and the health professionals had all the answers we needed.

After the open session there was chatting, but only to give everyone individual time with a nurse. I went last and discussed goals that I wanted to set. That was easy, I want to run and cycle back and forth to work and head out into the hills for a 10k trail run. Okay, that was all noted down, but what about goals for next week? I shan’t just repeat what I already wrote, Instead I said that I would increase my walking distance to just over 2k, whatever the weather. That probably means that next week’s goal will be 3k walks.

That’s a cardiac rehabilitation session. I think what is most useful about it all is the access to the nurses and the ability to talk about anything, the ability to talk to people who have been through similar experiences, and the exercise routine designed to strengthen, stretch and increase your stamina tailored to heart patients.

This has been another strong NHS experience for me, even if it was a number of weeks late in coming.

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