Heart disease can happen to anyone — even the fittest trainers. When Bob Harper had a near-fatal heart attack last February, it was the last thing he thought could happen. The then 51-year-old Daily Burn Black Fire trainer was in top shape, followed a healthy Paleo diet and had routine check-ups with his cardiologist. “I was working out and felt really good,” Harper recounts.
But during a training session at BRICK New York, Harper suddenly collapsed. The next thing he remembers was waking up in a hospital bed surrounded by family and friends. “I didn’t have any traditional signs of a heart attack, so it was a major surprise when I woke up in the hospital two days later,” Harper says.
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Heart disease runs in Harper’s family. His mother and grandfather (his mother’s father) both passed away from a heart attack at age 70. “When a person dies at 70 of a heart attack, a red flag doesn’t necessarily go up, but my doctor told me I had a bit of an issue with cholesterol,” Harper says. Harper later discovered that he had high levels of lipoprotein, a particle in your blood that carries cholesterol, fats and proteins. Lipoprotein can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease because it builds up fatty deposits in your arteries. What makes it difficult to treat lipoprotein is that the amount you have in your blood depends on your genes — and diet and exercise have little to no impact.
While genetics play a large role in your heart disease risk factors, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, D.O., a preventive cardiologist from New York and a national Go Red For Women volunteer, says keeping track of your numbers always helps. “People who have a family history of heart disease should monitor their cholesterol and blood pressure. If you have a parents who had a heart attack at age 45, you shouldn’t wait until you’re 45 to get your heart checked,” Dr. Steinbaum says.
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It was a long road to recovery, Harper says. “For the longest time, the only activity I could do was walk, and then it was me going back to the gym and being able to trust that I’ll be alright when I work out.” But today, The Biggest Loser host continues to take proactive steps to protect his health — starting with his diet and exercise routine.
With that said, here are some of Steinbaum’s top tips to reduce your risk of heart disease and stay healthy. Plus, learn how Harper is following doctors’ orders post-heart attack.
1. Follow a healthy, balanced diet.
Sticking to a clean eating routine can help protect your heart, since many pre-packaged foods are loaded with saturated fat, salt and sugar — a triple threat to your ticker. Dr. Steinbaum recommends the DASH diet and Mediterranean diet for heart health. “These diets are filled with vegetables and fruits, whole grains and heart-healthy fats, like omega-3 fatty acids,” Dr. Steinbaum says. But the worst diet for your heart? The ketogenic diet. “Ketosis is the unhealthiest state for your heart,” Dr. Steinbaum says. “We know that saturated fat increases your risk of heart disease.”
Leading up to the incident, Harper was following a Paleo diet, but since his heart attack, he has a new approach to clean eating. In his latest book, The Super Carb Diet: Shed Pounds, Build Strength Eat Real Food, Harper talks about the benefits of whole grains and the complex carbohydrates in vegetables and fruits. “I was working on the book before my heart attack, and back then I was relying solely on macro nutrients, like protein and fat,” Harper says. But Harper realized that people who are following a grain-free or Paleo diet are missing essential nutrients from whole grains that can help lower cholesterol. “What I learned about following a heart-healthy diet is to have balance. I don’t want people to be afraid of ‘carbage,’” he says.
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2. Exercise, but keep an eye on intensity.
Working out has many benefits: It’s good for your heart, boosts your metabolism burns fat and makes you feel good. But there’s such thing as adding too much intensity too soon. If you’re new to working out, ease into a regular routine before you jump into more intense workouts, like HIIT. “HIIT could be beneficial in preventing heart disease, but the more important thing is getting at least 150 minutes of cardio and weight training each week,” Steinbaum says. “That could be walking, running or cycling. It doesn’t need to be an extreme form of exercise,” she says.
After his heart attack, Harper changed his exercise routine and dialed down the intensity of his workouts. “I used to do workouts at a really high intensity, but now I’m not as concerned about pushing myself to such extremes. I balance my workouts with more yoga,” he says. Bottom line is to become more active, whether that’s through HIIT, running or weightlifting.
3. Manage stress.
Beyond diet and exercise, Dr. Steinbaum says keeping stress and anxiety to a minimum is an important component of heart disease prevention. “Stress can cause depression and increase heart disease risk two to four-fold. Managing these parts of ourselves are actually critical to preventing heart disease,” she says. To help alleviate stress, Harper practices transcendental meditation. “Transcendental meditation makes me feel better. When I do yoga and meditation, I’m able to make time for myself and be present for everyone in my life,” Harper says.
4. See your doctor regularly.
Cholesterol and blood pressure aren’t the only numbers you should be tracking. Dr. Steinbaum says to also monitor significant weight gain or changes to your blood sugar. “What’s interesting is that many women will learn about their heart disease risk when they’re pregnant because they might develop high blood pressure and gestational diabetes during this time,” Dr. Steinbaum explains. Heart disease takes decades to develop, but the real risks happen in your 20s and 30s. “Being overweight or obese can predispose you for heart disease and other conditions, like diabetes and metabolic syndrome. They’re all related,” she says.
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5. Stay committed to your health.
You can’t change your genes, but what you can control about your heart health is how well you take care of it. “Heart disease is 80 percent preventable. When people know that they can reverse their risks through healthy lifestyle choices, it makes the disease less scary,” Dr. Steinbaum says. For Harper, it means being able to trust his heart again. “During my recovery, it took a lot for me to go back to gym and know that my heart could handle it,” he says. “The gym was a safe and happy place for me before my heart attack, so it’s been a growing experience. It’s completely changed my relationship with my heart.”
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