Cardiac rehabilitation has been shown to have a dramatic effect on reducing cardiovascular mortality and morbidity and improving quality of life.

Designed to help improve health and enhance recovery from a heart attack, heart disease or various heart surgeries, cardiac rehab is a customized outpatient program involving both exercise and education. It often includes information regarding lifestyle changes to reduce heart disease risk, tips on maintaining a healthy weight, and emotional support. The program goals aim to help regain strength, reduce risk of future heart problems, reduce the likelihood of worsening heart conditions, and improving overall quality of life.

Cardiac rehab can provide an important part of recovery if you’ve suffered a heart attack or you’re suffering from heart failure. However, fewer than one in 10 eligible Medicare beneficiaries takes advantage of recommended heart failure rehab treatments, according to the American Heart Association. “Based on the current data, more than 90% of people with heart failure will not receive a treatment that could improve their health and survival,” said Vinay Guduguntla, MD, an internal medicine resident at the University of California, San Francisco.

A comprehensive supervised program, cardiac rehab typically includes regular physical exercise, education on healthy eating habits and taking medications as prescribed, and counseling to relieve stress and improve mental health. Such rehab may involve a team of professionals including physicians, physical therapists, nurses, nutrition specialists and counselors. It can range from two to eight months in duration.

Research has shown that cardiac rehab decreases the chance that a patient will die in the five years following a heart attack or bypass surgery by about 35%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And another study, recently presented at the European Society of Cardiology’s annual meeting, estimated that individuals who have survived a heart attack can gain more than seven healthy years of life if they adopt and abide by the tenets embraced in cardiac rehab.

Researchers have found that women are less likely than men to begin and complete cardiac rehab, possibly because they may not be offered the option, according to the CDC. The CDC likewise suggests that older adults are less likely to begin cardiac rehab, as they may believe they’re too old to become physically active, particularly if they experience conditions such as arthritis that make exercise more difficult.

The CDC recommends that if you’ve experienced recent heart problems, discuss cardiac rehab with your provider. Many insurance plans, including Medicaid and Medicare, cover it. Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, ScM, FAHA, past president of the American Heart Association, said, “I’m an enormous fan of cardiac rehab.” He said that after suffering a heart attack, people can be depressed, fearful about exercise, or feel that it’s too late to try to improve their cardiovascular health. “Cardiac rehab gets patients into a monitored setting where they can learn to trust their bodies again,” he said.