Last updated: Apr 11, 2008
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Exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in reducing symptoms.
(JUPITER IMAGES)
Antidepressants target chemical processes in the brain associated with mood and depression and are usually safe for heart patients under a doctor's care. But there are other important ways to lift your spirits and improve your heart health, particularly exercise, cardiac rehabilitation, and social support.


Get exercise
"Exercise is a marvelous way to feel better, get more energy, and feel back in control of yourself," says Robert Carney, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. For some people, exercise may be enough to lift their depression.

A recent study at Duke University Medical Center found that regular exercise was roughly as effective as antidepressants in reducing the symptoms of depressed patients. "Exercise not only improves cardiovascular function, it also doesn't require skill and isn't expensive," says James Blumenthal, PhD, who led the Duke study. Under a doctor's supervision, most patients can begin a light exercise program soon after heart surgery. For more information, see "Why Your Heart Needs Exercise."

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Start cardiac rehab
Cardiac rehabilitation programs are covered by most insurance programs and offer supervised exercise and lifestyle classes. But they also provide important psychological services and group support.

Karen Sanson, 60, of Cleveland, was depressed and terrified to leave the house after her heart attack three years ago. But when she started cardiac rehab, a psychologist helped her understand her fears. "It was very key for me to understand that the feelings were normal. As long as I knew what was going on, I felt better," says Sanson.

Short-term therapy may be just what some cardiac patients with depression need, says Leo Pozuelo, MD, associate director of the Bakken Heart-Brain Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. Dr. Pozuelo strongly encourages patients to take advantage of cardiac rehabilitation programs. For more information, see Cardiac Rehab Is Hard to Start, but Pays Off.


Reach out for social support
If you're depressed, you owe it to your heart to do everything you can to get better. But don't try to beat depression on your own. You need friends and family now more than ever. Studies show that heart attack survivors who spend less time alone and reach out for help have an easier time recovering from depression.

"People tell you about exercise, but re-engaging socially was also really important to me," says Bill Valvo, 60, of Newport News, Va. "I really threw myself into volunteer work and helping others—you help others and you help yourself," he says.