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Hearts in the Right Place

Exercise sessions before and after work, at 6:50 a.m. and 4:40 p.m, attract younger folk who pedal to '70s tunes, Motown and hard rock. In fact, the average age of participants is going down. There's Peter Ross, for example, who had a major heart attack at 39. He's been rehabbing for more than three years.

In Bev's eye, a major reason for the age decline is stress. Montgomery County, where most of her patients live, brims with lawyers, civil servants, journalists and medical professionals. The county practically oozes stress, she says.

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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QUICK STUDY : A weekly digest of new research on major health topics (The Washington Post, Apr 5, 2005)
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The basic exercise program at most hospitals is 36 sessions of about 70 minutes each, counting warm-up and cool-down. Medicare pays most of the cost of those 36 sessions for 65-plussers like me who've had open-heart surgery or who've suffered from angina or heart attacks. Many insurance plans also pay a major part of the cost.

But last year, Medicare stopped funding outpatient rehab for people who've received stents or angioplasty to clear blood vessels, on the theory, as a cardiac nurse at a Virginia hospital told me, that their conditions are fixed.

I realize that Medicare has money problems -- and, yes, I'm part of the problem; Medicare has invested about $200,000 in my welfare. But to say that stent recipients don't need rehabbing, to quote the nurse, "is about as far from the truth as you can get."

For those who continue in the exercise program after 36 sessions, Suburban reduces the number of blood pressure checks and EKGs and bills the individual $13 a session. Who knew you could get anything in a hospital for $13?

Still, it's cheaper to go a mile down Old Georgetown Road from Suburban to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase YMCA, which has a large exercise room plus three swimming pools. One day I asked another cardiac clubber, Ingeborg Staudinger, why she didn't go to the Y instead.

"Here you can ask the staff about anything that's bothering you," she says. Ingeborg remembers a time when she became angry. "I was yelling at my grandchildren. I came here one day and didn't say hello to anybody. Katie asked me, 'What's wrong with you? Are you on a new medication?' I was, but I wouldn't have known that might be the problem. The nurse phoned my cardiologist, and he took me off it."

Monitoring by the staff is probably the main reason that so many of my buddies continue in the club. Everything is supervised by a cardiologist, Eugene Passamani. If there's an emergency, the hospital ER is only a minute away. But, says Press, no one has ever suffered a heart attack in Suburban's exercise room.

Most of the long-termers come twice a week, but some work out three or four times, even five. Many are physically active on their own as well.

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