Helping Heart Patients Make Healthy Changes

By Dorothy Foltz-Gray. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Heart disease is the most common cause of death worldwide.

Those suffering or at risk for heart disease should start replacing bad habits, like smoking or not exercising, with healthier ones. According to a 2012 study in The Open Journal of Nursing, the key lifestyle changes in cardiac rehabilitation should involve diet, exercise, smoking cessation and stress reduction.

“Those are the tangible changes cardiac patients—and their families -- have to make, but emotionally they have to shift as well,” says Niki Barr, PhD, a psychotherapist for the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders in Fort Worth, Texas. “They have to grieve their old life and welcome or at least make sense of the new with a focus on being healthy.”

Making Healthy Changes Together

Changes have to come from both caregivers and the heart patients for the new healthy regimen to work, says Barr. For instance, a caregiver can’t feed his sick loved one a low-calorie, heart-healthy meal of boiled vegetables and fish, while he eats a burger and fries. Not only does that extend temptation, but it also fuels resentment and self-pity. The whole family has to take on new, healthy habits for the sake of a loved one suffering from heart problems.

Before heart patients and caregivers can overhaul habits, however, they have to work through feelings of depression, anger, denial and stress that may be roadblocks to change.

Heart Patient Strategies

Sign up for cardiac rehab. According to a 2013 analysis of nine studies at the Institute of Public Health in Rome, heart disease patients who participated in healthy lifestyle programs that largely included advice about diet, exercise, stress reduction and smoking cessation, had an 18 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who had only standard care.

Set realistic goals. No one can overhaul everything at once. Ask your loved one’s doctor, healthcare team and rehab program to help him set realistic goals. “Most patients won’t know what realistic goals are because these are changes to lifelong habits,” says Barr. “I’ve seen people either go to extremes, throwing out all the food in their cabinets, or refusing to make any change. The healthcare team can help patients and families understand what realistic goals are.”

The American Heart Association recommends creating short- and long-term goals that are specific and measurable (for example, losing one to two pounds a week; and four to eight pounds a month). It also suggests rewarding your loved one (and yourself) for every goal you meet. Go to a movie, for instance, or buy a book you’ve been wanting.

Find a counselor. According to a 2013 review of seven studies at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, patients and their partners who received psychological care not only had less anxiety and depression, but also improved their overall health.

“Most people don’t know how to deal with stress and depression,” says Barr. “So, it’s important to get over the stigma of seeing a therapist or coach who can help them deal with these emotions.”

Join a support group. According to a 2013 study at the William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, social isolation and lack of social support are common barriers to lifestyle changes necessary for people with heart disease.

“Support groups are hugely important so that you can see that everyone else is dealing with the same emotions you are,” says Barr.

Next Steps:

Caregivers should ask their loved one’s doctor or nurse about signing up for cardiac rehab and ask how they can be most supportive of that new commitment. Most hospitals offer programs, as do some senior or civic centers. Many are covered by health insurance or Medicare for the first two to three months.

Ask your loved one’s doctor, nurse practitioner or rehabilitation director to refer you to a support group. You can also call your local American Heart Association office or go to its website,, either to find a support group or learn how to start one.

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