It wasn't long ago that words like "heart attack" or "open-heart surgery" evoked feelings of dread. Often, such phrases meant giving up a career or favorite physical activity.

But about a dozen heart patients demonstrated Saturday what thousands of other heart patients across the country have discovered over the past decade: Life can be the same, even better, than it was before."I probably never would have walked a four-mile race before the triple bypass," said heart patient Calvin Haacke. "I had never exercised before, and now I'm walking four miles a day."

Haacke joined with other heart patients, their doctors, employees of Holy Cross Hospital and others to participate in the Holy Cross Miner's Mile Classic, a combination four-mile and one-mile race.

In the case of the heart patients and their doctors, it wasn't to see who was the fastest. It was to send a message.

"We are walking to demonstrate what heart patients are able to do after a heart attack or surgery, and to promote the value of exercise," said Dr. C. Hilmon Castle, a heart specialist.

It was only a decade ago that a stigma was attached to heart patients. A heart attack or open-heart surgery usually involved long hospital stays and reduced physical activities over the long term. Sometimes patients had to stop working or change to a less stressful job.

"We are now sending patients out of the hospital 3 to 6 days after a heart attack," Castle said. "And we now know that physical activity is not adverse, particularly if it is monitored. And there is a big movement toward getting people back to their normal activities sooner, getting people back to work sooner."

Heart problems resulted in radical lifestyle changes in decades past.Today, lifestyle changes are common as well, but usually they are for the better. "For me, it meant eating more sensibly," said Angus Mollison. "A lot less fat and a lot more chicken. And I exercise a lot."

The result, Mollison said, is that he continues to enjoy the same activities he did before his heart surgery. Two weeks ago he hiked in Zion National Park. Four weeks ago, it was a hike into the Grand Canyon.

"Exercise was the big thing for me," Haacke agreed. "I'd never exercised before. Now it's a part of my life and I feel better when I do it."

Castle said cardiac rehabilitation now comes with the expectation that patients will resume a normal productive lifestyle. And by moving the patient into rehabilitation and physical exercise at an early stage, it can actually accelerate the recovery.

"Still, it's better not to have the problems in the first place," Mollison says, adding that sensible eating habits and regular exercise are preventative measures all people should take.