Making it Stick

Researchers find that even after a heart attack, healthy habits are hard to keep.

While a New Year's resolution to start hitting the gym often fades by February, a heart attack can be a sobering wake-up call that it's time to get serious about getting healthy. But research shows that even survivors of cardiac events have a hard time sticking with exercise programs after their recovery.

apple with the shape of a heart carved in it

Researchers from the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University checked up on 248 individuals one year after completing a 12-week rehabilitation following a cardiac event-a heart attack, bypass surgery or angioplasty-and found that only 37 percent exercised three times a week to keep their hearts healthy.

"The study points out that interventions are needed to keep people exercising," says Mary Dolansky, assistant professor of nursing and the lead investigator of the study.

The study identified differences based on gender and age. Women were less inclined to continue healthy changes than men, while young men sustained healthy exercise patterns better than all other groups.

"The downward trend over time concerns us-especially since current guidelines suggest exercising five times a week," Dolansky says. "We need to understand why they stop exercising."

Women notoriously tend to put taking care of their families ahead of their own health needs, says Dolansky, which could explain the gender divide.

The research follows up on an assessment of individuals as they left a 12-week rehabilitation program to help cardiac patients make lifestyle changes in the area of exercise—a major factor in improving heart health.

Research team member Shirley Moore, the nursing school's associate dean for research, led the original study.

Both studies are projects of the SMART (Self-Managed Advancement Through Research Translation) Center, a National Institute of Nursing Research/National Institute of Health-funded Center of Excellence to build the science of self-management. This NIH-funded study is part of a long-term look at how people manage their chronic illness.

Understanding the barriers that keep patients from exercising is key to determining what new interventions they need to maintain healthy habits for life, Dolansky says.