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Cardiac Rehabilitation

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Last Update: June 4, 2023.

Continuing Education Activity

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the leading causes of death worldwide and the leading cause of death in the United States. Cardiac rehabilitation is customized to individual patients. Candidates for cardiac rehabilitation include patients with cardiovascular diseases such as ischemic heart disease, heart failure, myocardial infarctions, or patients who have undergone cardiovascular interventions such as coronary angioplasty or coronary artery bypass grafting. Cardiac rehabilitation programs aim to limit the psychological and physiological stresses associated with cardiovascular disease, reduce the risk of associated mortality, and improve cardiovascular function to help patients optimize their quality of life. This activity reviews the indications, contraindications, and phases of cardiac rehabilitation and highlights the role of the interprofessional team in caring for patients undergoing cardiac rehabilitation.


  • Describe the patient populations that may benefit from cardiac rehabilitation.
  • Review the phases of cardiac rehabilitation.
  • Outline the contraindications to cardiac rehabilitation.
  • Explain interprofessional team strategies for enhancing care coordination and communication to advance cardiac rehabilitation and improve outcomes.
Access free multiple choice questions on this topic.


Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is one of the leading causes of death worldwide and is the leading cause of death in the United States.[1][2] Cardiac rehabilitation, or cardiac rehab, is a complex, interprofessional intervention customized to individual patients with various cardiovascular diseases such as ischemic heart disease, heart failure, and myocardial infarctions, or patients who have undergone cardiovascular interventions such as coronary angioplasty or coronary artery bypass grafting.[3] Cardiac rehabilitation programs aim to limit the psychological and physiological stresses of CVD, reduce the risk of mortality secondary to CVD, and improve cardiovascular function to help patients achieve their highest quality of life possible.[4] Accomplishing these goals is the result of improving overall cardiac function and capacity, halting or reversing the progression of atherosclerotic disease, and increasing the patient's self-confidence through gradual conditioning.[5]

Several organizations, including the American Heart Association (AHA), The American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation (AACVPR), and the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, agree that a comprehensive cardiac rehabilitation program should contain specific core components. These components should optimize cardiovascular risk reduction, reduce disability, encourage active and healthy lifestyle changes, and help maintain those healthy habits after rehabilitation is complete. Cardiac rehabilitation programs should focus on:

  • Patient assessment nutritional counseling
  • Weight management
  • Blood pressure management
  • Lipid management
  • Diabetes management
  • Tobacco cessation
  • Psychosocial management
  • Physical activity counseling
  • Exercise training[6]


 The indications for cardiac rehabilitation are:[7]

  • Recent myocardial infarction
  • Acute coronary artery syndrome
  • Chronic stable angina
  • Congestive heart failure
  • After coronary artery bypass surgery
  • After a percutaneous coronary intervention
  • Valvular surgery
  • Cardiac transplantation


Contraindications to cardiac rehabilitation only apply to the exercise aspect. They include:[8]

  • Unstable angina
  • Acute decompensated congestive heart failure
  • Complex ventricular arrhythmias
  • Severe pulmonary hypertension (right ventricular systolic pressure greater than 60 mm Hg)
  • Intracavitary thrombus
  • Recent thrombophlebitis with or without pulmonary embolism
  • Severe obstructive cardiomyopathies
  • Severe or symptomatic aortic stenosis
  • Uncontrolled inflammatory or infectious pathology
  • Any musculoskeletal condition that prevents adequate participation in exercise


Cardiac rehabilitation under an interprofessional approach has well-established benefits.[9][10] The cardiac rehabilitation team is made up of members including the following:[4]

  • Patient
  • Patient's family
  • Physicians (surgeons, cardiologists, physiatrists, other specialists)
  • Pharmacists
  • Nurses
  • Physical therapists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Speech and language pathologists
  • Behavioral therapists
  • Dietitian
  • Case managers

Technique or Treatment

Cardiac rehabilitation consists of three phases.

Phase I: Clinical Phase

  • This phase begins in the inpatient setting soon after a cardiovascular event or completion of the intervention. It begins by assessing the patient's physical ability and motivation to tolerate rehabilitation. Therapists and nurses may start by guiding patients through non-strenuous exercises in the bed or at the bedside, focusing on a range of motion and limiting hospital deconditioning. The rehabilitation team may also focus on activities of daily living (ADLs) and educate the patient on avoiding excessive stress. Patients are encouraged to remain relatively rested until the completion of treatment of comorbid conditions or postoperative complications. The rehabilitation team assesses patient needs such as assistive devices, patient and family education, as well as discharge planning. 

Phase II: Outpatient Cardiac Rehab

  • Once a patient is stable and cleared by cardiology, outpatient cardiac rehabilitation may begin. Phase II typically lasts three to six weeks though some may last up to up to twelve weeks. Initially, patients have an assessment with a focus on identifying limitations in physical function, restrictions of participation secondary to comorbidities, and limitations to activities. A more rigorous patient-centered therapy plan is designed, comprising three modalities: information/advice, a tailored training program, and a relaxation program. The treatment phase intends to promote independence and lifestyle changes to prepare patients to return to their lives at home. 

Phase III: Post-cardiac Rehab

  • This phase involves more independence and self-monitoring. Phase III centers on increasing flexibility, strengthening, and aerobic conditioning. Patients receive encouragement towards maintaining an active lifestyle and continue the exercise. Outpatient visits to physician specialists are recommended to monitor cardiovascular health and medication regimens, promote healthy lifestyle changes and intervene when necessary to prevent relapse.[11][12]

There is also a presurgery phase, where the patient starts cardiovascular rehabilitation. A small number of studies demonstrate that the post-surgical pathway is better tolerated by patients.


A study in France reviewing the safety of cardiac rehabilitation found the cardiac arrest rate was 1.3 per million patient hours of exercise.[13] Rakhshan et al. studied the potential complications of heart rhythm device malfunction after eight weeks of cardiac rehabilitation, but the study revealed a decrease in physical complications in patients who received cardiac rehabilitation versus a control group.[14] 

Clinical Significance


Overall cardiac rehabilitation increases the quality of life and decreases health care costs.[15] Cardiac rehabilitation has many physiologic benefits due to its exercise component. Exercise training has been shown to increase maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max), improve endothelial function, and improve myocardial reserve flow. Additionally, cardiac rehabilitation can reduce smoking, body weight, serum lipids, and blood pressure.[11] Milani et al. found that cardiac rehabilitation decreased depression in heart disease patients who suffered a major coronary event.[16] A Cochrane review noted that cardiac rehabilitation reduced hospital admissions and showed a long-term decrease in all-cause mortality in patients heart failure patients with preserved ejection fraction. However, there was no short-term (less than 12 months) benefit to all-cause mortality.[9]


As stated above, cardiac rehabilitation goals can be designated into two broad categories:[4]

  • Short-term
    • Control cardiac symptoms
    • Enhance functional capacity
    • Limit unfavorable psychological and physiologic effects of cardiac illness
    • Boost psychosocial and vocational status
  • Long-term
    • Alter natural history of coronary artery disease
    • Stabilize or reverse the progression of atherosclerosis
    • Lessen the risk of sudden death and reinfarction

Future Research

In a systematic review of 19 random clinical trials, complex e-coaching was found to be an effective method of delivering therapies targeting physical capacity, clinical status, and psychosocial health; however, detailed protocols were not well described. Therefore, determining which aspects of e-coaching have the most benefit and need to be further developed have not been determined. In addition, basic e-coaching was not found to be effective.[17] Studies on the effects of cardiac rehabilitation for congenital heart disease (CHD) patients are lacking. Randomized clinical trials in adult and pediatric populations are needed to establish specific guidelines and the current evidence.[18]

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Even though there is an overwhelming body of evidence to support the benefits of cardiac rehabilitation, patient participation is unusually low. Data from Medicare and the CDC reveal 14 to 35% of heart attack survivors and about 31% of coronary bypass grafting surgery patients utilized or enrolled in cardiac rehabilitation or secondary prevention programs.[7] Leon et al. noted that low utilization correlated to a low referral rate, lack of insurance coverage, poor patient motivation, and limited program site accessibility.[19] A 2017 qualitative study on the patients’ perspectives of cardiac rehabilitation revealed psychosocial barriers to attending cardiac rehabilitation were lack of time and fear of exercise. Patients’ perceptions of cardiac rehabilitation (and subsequent participation) were also affected by prior exercise experience, physiotherapist communication, the severity of the cardiovascular disease or event, and the patient's future goals after rehabilitation. Therefore, the cardiac rehabilitation team should consider these points when creating rehabilitation programs for patients.[20] The interprofessional team for cardiac rehabilitation should include primary care, cardiology, cardiovascular surgeons, cardiac nurses, pharmacists, and occupational therapists. This team can improve outcomes. [Level 5]

Review Questions


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Heidenreich PA, Trogdon JG, Khavjou OA, Butler J, Dracup K, Ezekowitz MD, Finkelstein EA, Hong Y, Johnston SC, Khera A, Lloyd-Jones DM, Nelson SA, Nichol G, Orenstein D, Wilson PW, Woo YJ., American Heart Association Advocacy Coordinating Committee. Stroke Council. Council on Cardiovascular Radiology and Intervention. Council on Clinical Cardiology. Council on Epidemiology and Prevention. Council on Arteriosclerosis. Thrombosis and Vascular Biology. Council on Cardiopulmonary. Critical Care. Perioperative and Resuscitation. Council on Cardiovascular Nursing. Council on the Kidney in Cardiovascular Disease. Council on Cardiovascular Surgery and Anesthesia, and Interdisciplinary Council on Quality of Care and Outcomes Research. Forecasting the future of cardiovascular disease in the United States: a policy statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2011 Mar 01;123(8):933-44. [PubMed: 21262990]
Servey JT, Stephens M. Cardiac Rehabilitation: Improving Function and Reducing Risk. Am Fam Physician. 2016 Jul 01;94(1):37-43. [PubMed: 27386722]
Dalal HM, Doherty P, Taylor RS. Cardiac rehabilitation. BMJ. 2015 Sep 29;351:h5000. [PMC free article: PMC4586722] [PubMed: 26419744]
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Balady GJ, Williams MA, Ades PA, Bittner V, Comoss P, Foody JM, Franklin B, Sanderson B, Southard D., American Heart Association Exercise, Cardiac Rehabilitation, and Prevention Committee, the Council on Clinical Cardiology. American Heart Association Council on Cardiovascular Nursing. American Heart Association Council on Epidemiology and Prevention. American Heart Association Council on Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism. American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation. Core components of cardiac rehabilitation/secondary prevention programs: 2007 update: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association Exercise, Cardiac Rehabilitation, and Prevention Committee, the Council on Clinical Cardiology; the Councils on Cardiovascular Nursing, Epidemiology and Prevention, and Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism; and the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation. Circulation. 2007 May 22;115(20):2675-82. [PubMed: 17513578]
Balady GJ, Ades PA, Bittner VA, Franklin BA, Gordon NF, Thomas RJ, Tomaselli GF, Yancy CW., American Heart Association Science Advisory and Coordinating Committee. Referral, enrollment, and delivery of cardiac rehabilitation/secondary prevention programs at clinical centers and beyond: a presidential advisory from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2011 Dec 20;124(25):2951-60. [PubMed: 22082676]
Mampuya WM. Cardiac rehabilitation past, present and future: an overview. Cardiovasc Diagn Ther. 2012 Mar;2(1):38-49. [PMC free article: PMC3839175] [PubMed: 24282695]
Taylor RS, Sagar VA, Davies EJ, Briscoe S, Coats AJ, Dalal H, Lough F, Rees K, Singh S. Exercise-based rehabilitation for heart failure. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2014 Apr 27;2014(4):CD003331. [PMC free article: PMC6485909] [PubMed: 24771460]
Naughton J, Lategola MT, Shanbour K. A physical rehabilitation program for cardiac patients: a progress report. Am J Med Sci. 1966 Nov;252(5):545-53. [PubMed: 5924755]
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Achttien RJ, Staal JB, van der Voort S, Kemps HM, Koers H, Jongert MW, Hendriks EJ., Practice Recommendations Development Group. Exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation in patients with chronic heart failure: a Dutch practice guideline. Neth Heart J. 2015 Jan;23(1):6-17. [PMC free article: PMC4268216] [PubMed: 25492106]
Pavy B, Iliou MC, Meurin P, Tabet JY, Corone S., Functional Evaluation and Cardiac Rehabilitation Working Group of the French Society of Cardiology. Safety of exercise training for cardiac patients: results of the French registry of complications during cardiac rehabilitation. Arch Intern Med. 2006 Nov 27;166(21):2329-34. [PubMed: 17130385]
Rakhshan M, Ansari L, Molazem Z, Zare N. Complications of Heart Rhythm Management Devices After Cardiac Rehabilitation Program. Clin Nurse Spec. 2017 May/Jun;31(3):E1-E6. [PubMed: 28383338]
Anderson L, Oldridge N, Thompson DR, Zwisler AD, Rees K, Martin N, Taylor RS. Exercise-Based Cardiac Rehabilitation for Coronary Heart Disease: Cochrane Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2016 Jan 05;67(1):1-12. [PubMed: 26764059]
Milani RV, Lavie CJ, Cassidy MM. Effects of cardiac rehabilitation and exercise training programs on depression in patients after major coronary events. Am Heart J. 1996 Oct;132(4):726-32. [PubMed: 8831359]
Veen EV, Bovendeert JFM, Backx FJG, Huisstede BMA. E-coaching: New future for cardiac rehabilitation? A systematic review. Patient Educ Couns. 2017 Dec;100(12):2218-2230. [PubMed: 28662874]
Amedro P, Gavotto A, Bredy C, Guillaumont S. [Cardiac rehabilitation for children and adults with congenital heart disease]. Presse Med. 2017 May;46(5):530-537. [PubMed: 28126509]
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Disclosure: Joseph Tessler declares no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies.

Disclosure: Bruno Bordoni declares no relevant financial relationships with ineligible companies.

Copyright © 2024, StatPearls Publishing LLC.

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Bookshelf ID: NBK537196PMID: 30725881


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