How fast can you lose your fitness level? What? Not me! That could happen to other people…but not me!
Exercise and heart disease were always mutually exclusive in my mind! It never occurred to me that I would have to learn to exercise with heart disease.
Although I was born with a slight heart murmur I never once thought I had heart disease. In my case it was a leaky Mitral Valve. It was never a problem nor was it serious, but in January 2016 I had a bad lung infection which turned into my third bout of pneumonia. This dragged on and on and seemed to last for months. My energy levels dropped so low I pretty much stopped doing any significant work outs.
Sleep became something I used to do. My shortness of breath and my cough had become extremely bad, and I had less than zero energy.
Fitness routines were always a part of my life so working out had always been part of who I am. When I couldn’t exercise and didn’t even want to, I knew something serious was wrong. I hadn’t seen a doctor in several years because mine had retired. Time just zipped by and I never thought I needed one.
When I tried to find new doctor in May and June of 2016, many weren’t taking new patients and some were the bottom of the barrel. One of those referred me to a respirologist (another bottom of the barrel guy) who after one brief breathing test, ignored my horrible cough and said I had COPD and it was incurable. Inhalers were with me for the rest of my life he said. A month and half later I returned minus my chest infection but still coughing and demanded another test. When I passed it he said it didn’t matter, I still had COPD.
I couldn’t get away from his office fast enough.
My cough was getting worse and the shortness of breath was so bad I couldn’t sleep. I was almost afraid to sleep. Those two symptoms along with my total lack of energy turned out were obvious indications of a heart issue. Turned out the murmur was now screaming and yelling! I had not yet found a doctor I respected but one I just met told me flat out.” Go to the emergency ward at the hospital, NOW“. So I did! That was at 2 pm on a Thursday.
After a 12 hour wait, it was now 2 am. Finally, I was seen by a doctor who thought he recognized my problem and called a heart specialist. He took a quick look at me, checked the test results, and said, “this is so serious I am admitting you to the hospital right now, and we will schedule surgery in the morning”. My symptoms were so obvious, the others should have seen it, but didn’t. I had been explaining this was the problem to other doctors but nobody listened until now.
A few days later, I underwent open heart surgery to repair the valve. My ‘heart event‘ (as I found these things are called) occurred on Sept 15, 2016. My loss of fitness actually began eight months before my surgery. And of course I couldn’t do any activity other than light walking for six weeks after the surgery. My level of fitness had declined tremendously. Fortunately I still had the mental and muscle memory of exercising.
What I had learned so far was to never, never trust someone just because they are a doctor. Always, always get a second opinion on serious things. Remember, most doctors are not the top of their class.
Healing Phase, Weeks 1-6
I was lucky, I didn’t have a heart attack. The decline in exercise for 8 months and the impact of surgery left me at zero on a fitness scale. Aerobic ability was a memory, deep breathing was difficult and I tired very quickly.
My surgery involved opening my chest by cutting through my sternum. For 6 weeks following surgery they told me I could not drive or fly, couldn’t lift more than 5 lbs. I found I could not open our sliding patio door or lift up one of my dogs (they weigh 16 lbs each). Doctors told me not to put any stress on my chest or even open my arms wide. Exercise and heart disease were now a very real part of my world.
Getting out of bed was interesting, let me tell you! Try it without using your arms in any way! You cannot use your elbows or arms to push yourself up. Weight resistance training is a no-no. I had to squeeze my heart pillow (they actually give you a small heart shaped pillow to hold against your chest if you are going to cough) a lot. It was comical at first, big tough guys with a little coloured pillow. But you sure don’t see anyone walking around the ward without it. Not even to the bathroom. Coughing was tough but the thought of sneezing was terrifying! My doctor said it would take 3-6 months before I could resume normal activities.
But I could walk everyday. The first day home I don’t think I walked a quarter mile and I was pooped! It felt like I had completely lost my fitness level! I was so weak I wasn’t sure where to start.
Then I realized: I did know where to start! I had to learn how to exercise with heart disease.
A Plan Was What I Needed
- what my fitness level was – it was absolute zero!
- where I wanted it to be – I wanted to be as fit as I was prior to this situation!
- what had to be done and why – I had to slowly rebuild my fitness as I gained strength.
- I just had to put in the work to make it happen – I needed to be patient! This was hardest of all!
Rebuilding my aerobic ability had to be my starting point so I could start rebuilding my strength.
Walking every day for the first 3 weeks was all I could do! My sister Brenda stayed with us for a while and she and my wife Cheryl ensured I did my daily walk. It was much harder than I thought it would be! And they made sure that I did not mess around with any weights as I talked about doing. My sister was the enforcer and she knows I hate following anybody else’s rules! How could such a tiny person be such a bear? I was sleeping 9-12 hours at night and taking a nap each afternoon. It seemed like the weeks were flying by and I was not making any progress. Learning to exercise with heart disease was much harder that I expected.
First Signs of Progress
Then around week four I started to feel a little stronger. I thought I could lift some 5 pound dumbells and do some simple upper body work. The thought of a push up terrified me. Remember I had my chest cut open. Since I felt a bit stronger each day I knew I could deal with exercise and heart disease. I just had to follow point number 4 above.
I still walked daily and was now going faster and I felt some strength returning. If you are experiencing something similar, let me help you learn to exercise with heart disease!
All my workouts through this process will be available in the membership Workouts Library.
First Recovery, Weeks 7-9
After the first six weeks were up (Oct 30, 2016) I was enrolled in a ‘Healthy Heart Future‘ program at the Talisman Center here in Calgary, Canada. It started with a couple days of lectures, mostly from nurses about how to take care of your heart. They spent time on an overview of heart disease so we all had a good understanding of what was ahead.
Then we spent a short amount of time on nutrition, which they knew very little about. And what they did know was quite outdated, but they are a union and the nurses said they have to follow the union guidelines. That’s too bad really! It could have been so much better!
I started out with a 30 minute aerobic workout on either a stationary bike or a treadmill 3 times a week. On the alternate days, walking was my workout. It was a lot tougher than I thought. My surgeon told me no resistance training or medium to heavy weight-lifting, and then they handed out stretch bands so we could add some resistance. Good coordination huh!
Okay, stop complaining Ron, they are supposed to know more than us!
Just concentrate on redeveloping the lung capacity. I could not breathe deeply at all and I found that really discouraging. I am now two weeks into this and it is tougher than I thought it would be. Did I say that before? I want to lift some weights but my sternum has not completely healed so I need to be smart about this.
For the first time in my life, I am listening to someone else! Then after 3 weeks I was totally bored with the workouts. When they tried to get me to sign up for a shopping tour of a couple grocery stores with the nurses…I dropped out and decided to work out at home. I knew proper nutrition was based on a plant based diet and I knew how to read food labels.
My workouts were done very carefully and I did not do any weightlifting until 3 months after surgery. That was the target my surgeon set. I continued with the daily walks and started to carry 3 lb dumbbells on my walks. My walks got faster and when I used my treadmill at home I was at a 4.3 pace and a 4.3 incline. Most treadmills are pretty close to the same setting so you can see I was getting a little bit stronger.
A Bit of Strength, Weeks 10-12
I continued on my own at home. What I missed from the organized structure was the other people who were going through the same thing. None of them were relatively fit when their heart event occurred. That meant their fitness level was significantly lower than mine and they had very difficult times doing the workouts. In many cases it had been years since they had exercised at all. I missed talking to them about their stories.
For these three weeks I worked out at home in my gym. My thoughts were that this is going to take me six months to get back to my previous fitness level. My workouts started to change as I added a few new things each week. I still stayed away from weights other than carrying the 3 pound dumbbells when walking. Body weight exercises and full body stretching made up the core part of my workouts.
In the middle of the 12th week my cardiologist gave me clearance to go back to some light weightlifting. He strongly advised that I continue the two drug prescriptions for blood pressure, Metroprolol and Coversyl. He said the metal ring implanted in my valve was not human tissue and the surrounding area could be subject to infection. While the Coversyl helped with lowering blood pressure it also helped fight infection and he suggested I take it permanently, just for that reason!
A Dose of Reality!
The thought pf working out like I used to felt great, and I couldn’t wait. I am back, I said to myself.
Back to my gym, holy crap, the weights were a lot heavier than I remembered. And I was only lifting 10-15 pound weights. I decided to concentrate on building a base for the next couple of months.
The thought of doing a pushup terrified me! Gonna take a little time to overcome that?
Feeling good, Weeks 13-19
I still have my heart pillow, don’t think I will ever get rid of it. Nor will I forget how needed it was, and how I dreaded not having it in hand when the urge to cough arose.
Now that I had clearance from my surgeon to do some light weight lifting I designed a program to build a solid fitness base over the next 6 weeks.
My focus was on my engine, (heart & Lungs) bodyweight exercises and some light weight lifting. Working up to exercising for 60 minutes at an average intensity level of 6-7 on the Borg Scale, 4-5 days each week was my goal. Swimming was added when possible. It is one of the best all around exercise methods. I spent time on a treadmill, bike or rowing machine each day and added in a balance routine, several bodyweight routines and some weights. Did I overdo it…yeah, a little.
Another Damn Dose of Reality!
Then I realized that I wasn’t at the end of my fitness recovery, I was at the beginning! Time to ease up a bit. What a difference that made. When you do it properly, the progress is amazing. I did less each day and felt better each week.
My range of motion was improving, my strength was returning along with my previous levels of agility. The progress was tangible and I was loving it.
The results of my first 6 weeks have me very happy. My blood pressure is being tracked daily and it is down to normal, usually about 125 over 80. I am now starting to experiment with reducing the two blood pressure medicines I am on and I hope to be off both with-in a short time. Wait…didn’t I say listen to your doctors? Some people never learn!
My weight is 4-6 pounds over my target and my fitness is on track to my previous best levels. Another 3 months should see me back to what I call normal fitness and off any kind of medicines (I hope).
Six Months After Surgery, Weeks 10-12
Cheryl, my wife is still laughing about the one thing I forgot to write about. I forgot to tell you about my memory loss.
My doctor told me that the combination of being on a heart/lung machine during the surgery and the drugs I received (Fentenal and Curare) often cause some short-term memory loss. I actually had my wife listen to all instructions in the hospital because I found I could not remember any details. In the hospital, I found I could not remember how to tell the time! That was scary and frustrating.
Worse than that was when I tried to explain something and no one could understand me. That had me pretty worried. This sort of thing carried on for quite a while. I had to take my sister and my wife to doctor’s appointments because I knew I would not remember any conversation details.
There’s Light Ahead!
As I write this, it is now just six months since surgery and I am still forgetting some things but not as much. My workouts are getting better. I am now back to using 20 and 25-pound dumbbells and I have just started running. My aerobic capacity still needs a lot of work and my strength is slowly returning, but it is returning. Every time I add a new exercise the muscles complain but I love the feeling.
I am so thankful that I was quite fit going into this whole episode. This experience has made me realize how difficult exercising can be for those who are not used to it. Many people just accept life where they are and carry on living the way they are. They just cannot find the energy nor the motivation, and cannot put in the work to get fit. People who have not exercised in 20 or 30 years face such a daunting task!
But, it is not impossible, Let me show you how to get started
Have you recently had a “heart event” and are struggling with regaining physical fitness? Follow my tips for exercising with heart disease below!
- Follow ALL doctor instructions. Don’t set yourself back by trying to move through the healing process too quickly. Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint. Most of us guys think, “Yeah, it might take you awhile, but not me!” Then reality hits.
- After a few weeks of recovering from initial surgery, begin some extremely light cardio activity. Your body had been through a huge shock, I found even 15 – 20 minutes of walking be difficult. Setting goals and getting up to complete your exercises will have the added benefit of giving you a goal and helping stave off depression.
- When recovering from surgery, you will need to assess your diet to ensure the right climate for healing. You’ll want to be sure you’re getting lots of fiber as you can become constipated after surgery (for a combination of reasons including prescription drugs). Make sure you’re getting lots of complex carbs and lean protein to help keep your muscles strong and to keep your energy levels up. These foods should give you energy without risking a lot of weight gain from your temporary sedentary lifestyle. There are also other must-haves for your diet: Food with live bacteria (probiotics) to help replace the healthy bacteria that your antibiotics are depleting.
- After you get the all-clear from your doctor, you can start adding some light strength and resistance exercise into your daily cardio. Remember, LIGHT! I started with just carrying a 3-lb dumbbell around on my half hour walks. At around the same time, with your doctor’s all-clear, you can start a light yoga regime to help rebuild your agility and flexibility. Yoga also focuses on the breathing, which, as I previously mentioned, I struggled with as I recovered and it will help you build strength from body weight exercises.
- Between 4 and 6 months, you can start adding more weight if you feel comfortable doing so. At this point, I was lifting only 10-15-lb weights and it was difficult. Don’t be frustrated by your progress, you will get a little stronger every day.
- From seven months on, you can start adding in new exercises and continuing to add on weights. Get your doctors opinion on what sorts of exercises are appropriate for you (for example if you have had a heart attack, the types of cardio that are fine for me may not be ok for you to do). Some great cardio exercises include biking, cross-country skiing, and dancing.
- Always include cardio in your regime. I always say that fitness has many components, none of which should be ignored as you age. For men, it is “trendy” to bulk… big muscles with cardio often being neglected. Your heart is the most important muscle in your body. Make sure you are working it.
- Once you get back to your regular routine or at least moderate exercise and increase your heart rate, you should wear a heart monitor when doing cardio to track your heart rate. See How Hard To Work Out for details on measuring your THR and your recovery rate.