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Resuming activities

Over time, you will be able to do many of the things you used to do. Talk to your doctor about when you can safely resume different activities such as driving, returning to work, air travel and sexual activity. In the early stages of your recovery, try to avoid:

  • Bathing or showering in very hot or very cold water.
  • Lifting heavy weights.
  • Pushing or pulling actions during which you hold your breath.
  • Working for long periods with your arms over your head.
  • Doing repetitive arm work such as raking, digging, grass cutting or vacuuming.

As you resume your regular activities, remember to always listen to your body and rest when you need to. Everyone is different and will recover at his or her own pace. Here are some general guidelines to help you get back on track.

Most people who have had a heart attack or heart surgery should wait for at least 4 to 6 weeks after they leave the hospital before driving. The reason: weakness, fatigue or medications may slow your reaction time. If you’ve had surgery, you’ll also need some time for healing of your chest incision and time for your blood counts to get back to normal. Consider your own safety and the safety of others. If you have other heart conditions, speak to your doctor about the length of time that is right for you. If you are a commercial driver, you will likely not be permitted to drive for at least 3 months after having had a heart attack or heart surgery. Your provincial or territorial ministry responsible for transportation will usually require information from your doctor before reissuing your commercial license.

Returning to work
If you worked before your heart attack or heart condition, you can usually go back to the same job within 8 to 16 weeks. How soon you can return depends on many factors including your symptoms, how you feel and how physically demanding or stressful your job is. It may be a good idea to return on a part-time basis at first and gradually work up to full-time hours.

Sexual activity
It’s normal to feel anxious or uncertain about resuming sexual activity after your heart attack or heart surgery or if you have a heart condition. If you are concerned that sexual activity may bring on a heart attack, you should know that it occurs very rarely. Sexual activity is not as demanding on your heart as you may think. In fact, if you can easily walk up 2 flights of stairs or walk briskly, your heart can meet the demands of sexual activity. Most people can usually resume sexual activity within 2 to 3 weeks of coming home from the hospital. Some medications, however, may reduce your sex drive. Some men may find that certain drugs may make it more difficult to achieve or maintain an erection. Talk to your doctor about any questions or concerns you may have.

Air travel
Air travel can be stressful if you are recovering from heart surgery or have a heart condition – whether you are navigating through a crowded airport with your luggage or dealing with the cramped space and lowered humidity levels on-board. If you have recently had a heart attack or have an existing heart condition, always talk to your doctor and check with your airline before you plan a trip. Most major insurance companies will not provide out-of-province or out-of-country medical insurance earlier than 90 days after a heart attack or a change in your medical treatment. Each airline also has its own policy for flying passengers after a heart attack.

Physical activity
Physical activity helps protect against heart diseasestroke and many other health conditions. It is also an important part of cardiac rehabilitation programs and an important way for heart patients to keep their cardiovascular system strong and resilient. The Foundation has developed a HeartWalk Workout to help people with cardiovascular problems get regular, healthy physical activity. Talk to your doctor before you start any exercise programs.

Snow shoveling
Extreme weather conditions, such as very high temperatures and humidity in the summer, smog, and cold winter days, can make physical activity more strenuous. Both strenuous exercise and extreme weather independently increase blood pressure, push the heart rate up, and increase blood concentration of fibrinogen, a protein involved in blood clotting. All of these factors contribute to increased heart attack risk.

The Foundation recommends approaching physical activity in extreme weather with caution if you have been diagnosed with heart or blood vessel disease (including stroke, previous heart surgery, and uncontrolled high blood pressure) or if you are at increased risk of a cardiac event because of high cholesterol levels, an inactive lifestylebeing overweight, or obese or other risk factors. Speak to your doctor about what is acceptable for your health.

The risks become even greater when vigorous exercise and extreme weather are combined, such as when shovelling snow in sub-zero weather conditions. Studies show that in most people who have died shovelling snow or carrying out some other form of vigorous physical activity in extreme weather conditions, the plaque inside their blood vessels ruptured and travelled to the heart causing a heart attack. The rupture may be caused by increases in blood pressure or changes in vascular tone associated with physical exertion. Plaque is a sticky, yellow substance made up of fatty substances such as cholesterol, calcium, and waste products from your cells.

Here are some tips from the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

  • Take the time to do a few minutes of warm-up activity like walking to increase your heart rate slowly and prepare you for the activity.
  • Build in frequent breaks from extreme weather activities so your body doesn’t become too strained.
  • Ask for help from family, friends or neighbours if you need to do an urgent task, such as clearing snow, in bad weather.
  • Wear appropriate clothing and keep water nearby to replace fluids lost through perspiration.
  • Plan ahead. Watch your local weather forecast for smog, humidity, heat and extreme cold alerts and plan for enough time or get help with major tasks like snow shovelling, on those days.
  • Stop your activity if you experience sudden shortness of breath, discomfort in the chest, lightheadedness, nausea, dizziness, or severe headache and immediately seek medical attention. 

Snow shovelling in very cold weather has specific risks. Here are some additional tips to help you stay safe during this particular activity:

  • Don’t continue shovelling just to get the driveway cleared in a hurry. If you’re tired, quit.
  • Don’t shovel or do any other vigorous activity directly after eating a meal. Your body is working hard enough just to digest the meal; adding vigorous activity on top of that could put too much strain on your heart.
  • Don’t stoop to pick up the snow; bend at the knees to avoid back problems.
  • Find out if your community offers programs or assistance for snow shovelling or snow removal (particularly for older adults or those with existing heart conditions).

Recovery RoadRead our brochure Recovery road: An information guide for heart patients and their families. Recovery Road is a 128-page, comprehensive booklet designed for heart patients like you, your family and friends to improve your success of recovery, understand the diagnosis and treatment you will receive and make healthy changes to your lifestyle. It is Canadian, current and has been approved by Heart and Stroke Foundation medical experts. You can download the PDF (2.3 MB) from our website or order the booklet online.

Last modified: January 2015
Last reviewed: August 2011