Health & Fitness

Exercise after cardiac arrest is critical to regaining heart strength

Rigoberto Abraham, who suffered a heart attack 2 years ago, uses crossfit as physical theraphy at Crossfit Rebar on Friday, Sept. 19 ,2014 in Kendall, Fla.
Rigoberto Abraham, who suffered a heart attack 2 years ago, uses crossfit as physical theraphy at Crossfit Rebar on Friday, Sept. 19 ,2014 in Kendall, Fla.

Rigoberto Abraham’s risk for coronary disease was textbook.

Abraham, 43, was a longtime smoker with a family history of heart attacks. He also had exceptionally high cholesterol.

But the Miami resident was an active CrossFitter who visited the gym several times a week. So when he began to feel chest pain two years ago while at the gym, Abraham thought nothing of it. After all, CrossFit is comprised of high intensity exercise that tests endurance and strength. It is not unusual to feel beat.

“But when I got home, I got a little bit dizzy,” Abraham said. “I realized that I was having a heart attack and told my wife to call an ambulance.”

He was brought to Baptist Hospital of Miami, where a CT scan revealed that one of his arteries was 99 percent blocked. Doctors inserted a stent, a small mesh tube that expands to open the artery.

“We restored the flow in his arteries to normal and his heart function was quite good,” said Dr. Marcus St. John, a interventional cardiologist with Miami Cardiac and Vascular Institute at Baptist Hospital of Miami. “He didn’t sustain any significant long-lasting damage to his heart muscle.”

Abraham knew he had to make changes in his life, but he hoped his CrossFit regimen would not have to be one of them.

“The day after my operation, I was a little bit nervous,” Abraham said. “But the doctor said the best thing that I could do was lead a healthy lifestyle.”

St. John says he advised Abraham to ease into returning to physical activity. While there are many positive cardiovascular benefits to exercise, he says people with heart muscle damage have to be cautious not to overexert themselves.

“People need to pay attention to their bodies’ cues,” St. John said.

At the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, the Specialized Cardiology Clinic for Genetic Cardiac Disorders and Competitive and Recreational Athletes, was established to offer physical therapy and other services for patients recovering from a major cardiac event.

“Rehab is the first step in getting normal,” said Dr. Robert J. Myerburg, professor of medicine and physiology at UM.

The length of rehabilitation and the regimen depends on the severity of the heart attack.

“It is all individualized,” Myerburg said. “Typically, patients go through a month or two of rehab.”

Myerburg says the center encourages its patients to continue an active lifestyle. Physical activity is a critical measure to prevent another heart attack, although there is no concrete data to suggest by how much it reduces the risk.

“The data is all over the place, but they are all consistent in that a healthy lifestyle is beneficial after the heart attack,” Myerburg said.

Exercise strengthens the heart and the cardiovascular system. It also improves blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

However, he notes, there are some activities that patients who have suffered cardiac arrest should be particularly prudent with, especially if they are recently recovering.

“One thing we need to be careful about is resistance or weight training with the upper extremities because that puts strain on the heart,” Myerburg said.

Abraham was fortunate that his heart function was not significantly affected. Only 20 days after he went into cardiac arrest, he rode 26 miles on a stationary bike.

He quit smoking and began to eat healthier. Now, his stamina is greater than before.

“I feel like a 15-year-old,” Abraham said.

And he returned to his hour-long CrossFit workouts, which he attends four times a week.

“I don’t get tired as easily,” Abraham said. “It was like changing the oil in a car.”