Fighting back after heart attack and stroke

If you're recovering from a heart attack or stroke, don't take it lying down. Get up and get moving as soon as you can. It's critical for your physical recovery, of course, but it's also positively essential to your mental health -- especially if you're fighting your way back from a heart attack.

Many heart patients face depression after an attack, and it's often so bad that doctors prescribe antidepressants such as SSRIs to fight it off.

But those meds are a bad idea in the best of times, and after a heart attack -- when patients are already taking more pills than they can count -- those drugs can make a bad situation worse.

Exercise, on the other hand, is a proven mood-booster that studies have shown can be as effective as SSRIs at fighting off depression. And now, a new study shows that's even true among heart attack patients.

Researchers assigned 2,322 heart failure patients to either regular aerobic exercise or "usual care," which included advice to get exercise but no actual structured exercise program.

You know how that works, right? Most people hear the advice but never actually engage in the exercise (this isn't just true for heart patients, by the way).

Over the course of a year, the exercisers did consistently better on a 63-point depression test than those who didn't exercise. With an average difference of one point, it wasn't a huge improvement -- but it held throughout the study.

In addition, many of these patients weren't all that depressed to begin with. Among those who were more seriously depressed, however, the benefit was even bigger. All told, the researchers say exercise worked about as well as antidepressant drugs -- minus the actual drugs and their side effects.

And for the icing on the cake, those who did the exercise program were 15 percent less likely to die or return to the hospital for heart failure during the study period.

Exercise doesn't have to be intense and you certainly don't need to work yourself to the brink of another heart attack. In this case, they used a treadmill or bike for 30 minutes three times a week.

Other, even gentler, forms of exercise can also have a benefit. Yoga, for example, can help ease depression and boost heart health.

And if you or someone you love is recovering from a stroke, you might want to work on your "lotus" pose, because another new study finds the gentle stretches of yoga can help restore balance.

I don't mean the esoteric concept of balance that yoga lovers often talk about, but actual balance -- the physical coordination that many people lose after a stroke.

In the new study, stroke survivors who tried eight weeks of yoga had better balance, were less afraid of falling, were more independent and even reported better quality of life and improved mindset over those who didn't get stretched out.

Some of those changes might sound minor, but they led to major real-world improvements -- like stroke survivors in the yoga group who would want to walk through a store instead of ride in a scooter, or get out and visit friends instead of stay at home.

You don't have to be a heart patient or stroke survivor to benefit from exercise. Regular movement -- even simple, gentle stretches and not necessarily yoga -- can help lower blood pressure, ease pain, boost the mood, reduce anxiety, and more.

Exercise can even help prevent that heart attack or stroke from happening in the first place -- and that's the biggest benefit of all.