A heart monitor helped Nancy Kirk overcome her fear.
| Credit: (NANCY KIRK)

A heart monitor helped Nancy Kirk overcome her fear.(NANCY KIRK)

People with diabetes are at high risk of heart disease (more than 75% die of stroke or heart attack).

It can be a bit scary to exercise if you have heart disease or have had a heart attack, but with the proper monitoring, it can be done. Exercise can lower your blood sugar, strengthen heart muscle, lower your blood pressure, and create a sense of well-being—all factors that can help you avoid future problems.

Nancy Kirk, 60, a public relations consultant in Omaha, Neb., was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2001, had a heart attack in 2005, and underwent bypass surgery a year later.

Working out at a cardiac rehabilitation center
Kirk started exercising in the cardiac rehabilitation program at Creighton University Medical Center in Omaha after the heart attack and then continued for 15 months until the bypass surgery. She started up again after the bypass surgery as soon as she had her surgeon's approval.
5 Safety Precautions to Take Before You Exercise


Almost anyone with diabetes can exercise, with a few precautions Read moreMore about exercising safely with diabetes

"In the beginning of each sequence I was on a heart monitor for six weeks whenever I exercised, which gave me some confidence that I wouldn't overdo it," says Kirk.

Kirk says that at first she didn't understand why she was supposed to exercise to raise her heart rate when they "had me on heavy meds to reduce my heart rate and blood pressure. It was very counterintuitive."

The nurses explained that with exercise, her muscles would become more efficient at using oxygen and it actually would result in less work for the heart. "So I kept going," she said.

[ pagebreak ]Monitoring during exercise
There are always at least two nurses and one exercise physiologist supervising the program, Kirk says. Kirk starts with a low-impact warm-up including stretches, then does five-minute intervals starting with "arms"—a machine with handles that you pull back and forth without moving your feet. She then uses an exercise bike, free hand weights, a rowing machine, stair steps, and then goes back to the arms.

"Each person has a slightly different routine—I have bad arthritis in my hips, so the treadmill is painful, but I can do stair steps instead."

Kirk says the nurses take her blood pressure before and after the exercise session, and check her blood sugar and weight, as well as record any changes in medications.

Those records go to the cardiologist, and her progress is monitored at quarterly checkups. She pays $35 per month.

"It's less expensive than many other gyms," says Kirk. She added that it's nice to exercise with people who are in a similar condition, "instead of having to bicycle next to a 20-something in a cute leotard."

"Plus it's great to have nurses on site the whole time, just in case."