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Hearts in the Right Place

But rehab programs have been winning impressive endorsements. A four-year Stanford University study published in 1994 concluded that people who went into a rehab regime that focused on lifestyle, including exercise and also such positives as stress management, were 47 percent less likely to be hospitalized for another cardiovascular event than comparable people who didn't receive this care. And a Mayo Clinic study published in 2004 found that heart attack survivors who participated in a medically supervised exercise program improved their chances of living for at least three more years by more than 50 percent.

I fervently hope three years isn't the limit. The durability of many of my cardiac club buddies inspires me to think it won't be. Some have been rehabbing for 10 years or longer.

At top, members of Suburban Hospital's cardiac rehab program go through their paces on treadmills and recumbent bikes. Such programs have been shown to extend lives -- and build friendships. (Katherine Frey - The Washington Post)

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For example there's Jay Cantor, 72, a semi-retired patent attorney.

"I've been in the program 20 years," he says. "I've had almost every cardiac procedure imaginable: one bypass, a valve replacement, five angioplasties and two pacemakers. But I'm still here. I give the program a lot of credit."

The philosophy he adopted: "If I make it, fine. If I don't, I won't know the difference." Irving Birnbaum, a retired supervisor of aircraft mechanic training for the Federal Aviation Administration, had a heart attack 14 years ago. "I never thought I'd make it," he says, "but here I am" -- at the age of 90.

Irving once bought an exercise bike to use at home. "All I did was look at it. I'd say 'hello' and walk away," he says. Now he rides three buses to get to Suburban twice a week.

"It's the best thing that ever happened to me," Irving says. "I enjoy this. You make friends, it's congenial." He and some of his buddies come early for a social hour.

"If I offered breakfast, lunch and dinner, a lot of people would stay all day," says Beverly Press, the center's director. "I see people getting younger," she adds -- surely rehab's ultimate accolade. If a rehabber has missed a few sessions, the staff may welcome him with a hug when he returns.

Or when she returns. But women are a minority in the club. Heart disease is just as serious a problem for women as it is for men, but Bev says she believes many women are reluctant to join in because they may be self-conscious about their weight or "they think this is going to be like a regular gym, that it's going to be bodybuilding and you have to buy a fancy outfit." In fact, many of us exercise in street clothes and sneakers. And very few of us have bodies anyone would whistle at.

Don't let the music mislead you: Not all of the 450 people who exercise every week at Suburban are codgers nostalgic for "Chattanooga Choo Choo."

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