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Returning to normal activities

The time it takes to return to regular activities after a heart attack will be different for everyone. Find out what to expect in the first few weeks after you've left hospital and where to get support.

man pruning lemon tree post-heart attack

The first few days and weeks at home after having a heart attack can be difficult. You may wonder:

  • what is safe to do
  • whether you should be going out and about
  • when you can expect to get back to work
  • when you can start doing exercise.

While it is very normal to feel nervous about starting activity again, it's important for your health and wellbeing to do so. You'l also need to look at ways you can reduce your risk through lifestyle changes.

In the first few weeks following your heart attack, the focus should be on short bouts or 'snacks' of activity. For example, initially you may start by doing several two to three minute walks to your neighbour's mailbox throughout the day.

These 'activity snacks' should become more frequent or longer in duration/distance as your recovery, fitness and confidence progresses. Eventually, you should be aiming to accumulate at least 30 minutes throughout the day. If you're already past this early stage, you can read more about developing your regular exercise programme on our exercise after a heart attack page.

The heart may still be recovering from the heart attack, so it’s important you do not push yourself too hard in the first few weeks, no matter how good you might be feeling.

You are likely to have good days and bad days but as time goes by, you should improve steadily and gradually feel better. A good rule of thumb is to gradually build up what you do and how active you are. Start off slowly, pace yourself, see how you feel and make a plan to get back to normal.

Psychologist Marie Young, talks about creating a plan for returning to activity, listening to your body and pacing yourself.

What support is available?

Returning to normal activity can be hard, particularly if you don't have a lot of support. Here are some useful tools to help get you back on track and reduce your risk of another heart attack:

  • Attend cardiac rehabilitation - Cardiac rehabilitation is an important support and training programme for people recovering from a heart attack. Attending cardiac rehabilitation reduces your risk of another heart attack and improves your general health and wellbeing.
  • Get a green prescription. The green prescription is a free government-led programme which helps people with exercise and nutrition advice to improve their health. The programme includes free consultations with a trained activity coach and the opportunity to participate in local activity programmes.

    You can get a green prescription referral from your family doctor (GP) or nurse, or from your cardiac rehabilitation programme. Alternatively you can call the green prescription phone line 0800 ACTIVE (22 84 83).
  • Contact a local support group - There are a number of volunteer-run local support groups throughout the country.

Try our four week plan

Take small steps to gradually build up what you do. Get going with your short ‘snacks’ of activity. For example:

  • make yourself a cup of tea
  • walk to the mail box
  • walk while you talk on your mobile phone.

Make time for relaxation
Try some relaxation techniques or stretching exercises (although if you've had bypass surgery, avoid the upper body stretches).

Start talking
Begin talking to family and friends about what has happened to you.

Book a visit to your GP
If you haven't already, book a visit your family doctor (GP) and discuss:

  • what has happened to you
  • your follow-up care
  • medications
  • what you can do to help your recovery

This is a good time to talk to your GP about returning to work, driving and any other concerns you may have.

Once your body is used to short ‘snacks’ of activity spread across the day, start building up the amount of light physical activity you do. Light physical activity is any activity that doesn’t make you too breathless to speak. Avoid:

  • Lifting heavy weights that might require you to strain
  • Short sharp intense effort that makes you breathless

Try 10 minutes of light activity
You could start by doing about 10 minutes of continuous activity, for example you could:

  • take a leisurely walk on level ground
  • do light housework (not vacuuming)
  • some light gardening (nothing that requires too much bending, pulling, lifting or straining).

Use the talk test as a way of keeping your activity at a safe level. If you can’t talk in sentences while you're exercising, you're working too hard and should slow down. If you can whistle or sing, you may be going too slow and could speed up.

It's important to go at your own pace. Listen to your body and watch for any cardiac warning signs such as angina, lightheadedness or shortness of breath. Stop if you experience chest pain.

Check in on your emotional health
It's very common to experience the 'cardiac blues' in your first few weeks after a heart attack. You may feel:

  • uncertain
  • fearful
  • lonely
  • isolated

Even with your friends and family/whānau. This is very normal in the early days and will usually pass. However people with heart disease have a higher rate of depression and anxiety than the general population, so it's important you know the signs and symptoms.

Hear from others who've had a heart attack
Visit our Journeys section to find out how other people have coped after a heart attack.

Build up your information bank
Learn more about what has happened to your heart, your treatment and ongoing lifestyle changes that will aid your future health and wellbeing.

Plan something enjoyable to do
For example you could go to the cinema, listen to music, or go for a coffee with a friend.

Keep practising your relaxation techniques.

Take stock of your progress
Think about your lifestyle, your risk factors, the advice you have been given and the conversations you have had with your family and those close to you. Make a note of all the things that you think are important for your health and recovery and the changes that you might want to make.

Decide what changes are most important to you and start with those. Involve your family in this discussion and get their support. Don’t try to change everything at once. Choose one or two things that are really important to you.

How are you getting to grips with your medication?
If you have any questions/concerns about your heart medication or feel you are experiencing side effects, visit your local pharmacist or talk to your GP.

Try 20 minutes of activity
Continue to increase the duration or frequency of your activity, aiming to accumulate 20 minutes per day. Get tips and more information on the exercise after a heart attack page.

Find out more about returning to work, and driving and travel.

Plan something enjoyable to do this week
For example you could go for a leisurely walk on the beach, read a book or magazine, or go for a coffee with a friend.

Look into cardiac rehabilitation
If you haven't received any details about cardiac rehabilitation in your area, contact your GP or cardiology team.

Be aware: that in some parts of New Zealand cardiac rehabilitation is currently unavailable.

Review the plan you made last week
Are your goals and action plans realistic? Is anything getting in your way of achieving your goals? How will you overcome this problem? Try goal setting.

Make exercise a regular part of your everyday routine
The intensity should still be light, focusing on slowly increasing the duration. Remember that everyone progresses differently following a heart attack, so listen to your body. Try to add a bit of variety to your exercise routine to ensure it remains fun and enjoyable.

Keep practising your relaxation techniques.

Plan something enjoyable to do
For example you could go to a social gathering, go for a walk, go out for dinner with friends.

How can cardiac rehab help me?