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In a Heartbeat

Meet Jim, he’s a 64 year old husband, father and teacher. Jim leads a pretty active lifestyle and enjoys exercising, and things like hiking and cross-country skiing. He is among the regulars at JCC Rockland’s Russin Fitness center, one of the gyms at which I train clients. Jim engages in some light weight lifting, and cardio exercise, but his favorite is spin class (cycling). Jim was doing spin 3-4 times a week until one evening in November 2017. Something happened that would change his life, and could have ended it.

Cardiovascular disease is on the rise in the U.S. The number of people with heart failure is expected to rise by 46 percent by 2030. That means 8 million people will have heart failure by then. Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in our country. The good news is that death rates from heart disease are down. One possible reason for the decline in fatalities in these cases may be the fact that more people are becoming a little more conscious about their heart health, and thereby leading more active lifestyles.

Jim, being one of those people who prefers exercise over a sedentary existence, loves a challenge. So when he heard about a new HIIT exercise class they were doing at the gym, he jumped at the chance to try it out. High Intensity Interval Training is is a form of interval training, a cardiovascular exercise strategy alternating short periods of intense anaerobic exercise with less intense recovery periods, until too exhausted to continue. Though there is no universal HIIT session duration, these intense workouts typically last under 30 minutes, with times varying based on a participant's current fitness level. Designed to boost the metabolism and strengthen the heart, H.I.I.T. classes are becoming more and more popular with gyms like Orange Theory and JCC’s Fitness 450 popping up everywhere. Jim decided to try one of the classes, and felt fine through most of it, but toward the end of the class, Jim suddenly collapsed. Although his heart did not stop, he was out cold. “It was probably a good thing, because passing out like that probably [kept] me from going into cardiac arrest”, Jim says. Jim was aware that he had a heart murmur and a bicuspid aortic valve (BAV), which is a congenital heart defect. However, it was never thought to be a threat, and since he is very fit, he’d never had any issues relating to his heart. On this evening though, the intense exercise would alert Jim to a problem; the fact that his condition was more serious than he ever imagined. Fortunately for him, fate would have it, Rockland’s top cardiologist is a regular member at the gym, and happened to be there that evening. He came to Jim’s aid and helped stabilize him until EMT’s arrived. When they checked Jim out at the hospital, they found that he had a 65% blockage.

He eventually underwent open-heart surgery to replace the valve. Although he experienced the event while exercising, it could have happened at anytime. As it so happens, exercise and being in such good physical condition may have saved his life. “They said that if I wasn’t in the shape I’m in, I would [probably] be dead”, he recalls. He is not alone; there are many stories of those whose situations would have been more severe, or even fatal if not for the fact that they were engaged in regular physical fitness regimens. One widely publicized case is that of Bob Harper. The celebrity personal trainer from the TV’s The Biggest Loser. On February 12, 2017, he suffered a near fatal heart attack at age 51. Coincidentally, in Bob’s case there was also a doctor in he facility where Bob had been working out just before he collapsed. Like Jim, Bob also had a hereditary issue. Instead of a bicuspid valve, he had large amounts of lipoprotein (a) in his blood. It is a particle that contributes to plaque in the arteries and blood clots, and can increase the risk of heart attacks. Unlike Jim, Bob did go into cardiac arrest, and had to have CPR performed to save him. For both men, the ticking time bomb that would eventually sneak up on them would serve as a wake up call.

TV's The Biggest Loser's Celebrity Trainer Bob Harper

Celebrity Trainer Bob Harper

Know The Symptoms

Jim maintains that he experienced no symptoms or warning signs at anytime before his cardiac episode. This is possible, although rare. The fact is that most people ignore the warning signs that come before these heart events. Heart attacks in particular have a list of symptoms. These symptoms can differ from male to female, but there are similarities.

Men often experience:

  • Chest discomfort

  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms

  • Neck, back, Jaw and/or stomach pain

  • Cold Sweat

  • Dizziness

Women often experience:

  • Chest discomfort

  • Neck, back, Jaw and/or stomach pain

  • Sudden Weakness

  • Body aches

  • Nausea and/or vomiting

My advice to everyone is to get regular check ups, know your family history, and engage in regular exercise and a healthy diet. Of course, if you do discover that you have heart issues, consult with your doctor before you engage in any exercise program. As for those survivors like Jim, cardiac rehab is key, but for him, he says get back in action as soon as your doctor gives you the green light. “People often ask me am I afraid. I can’t live life like that, no one should. You may have to be careful, but exercise is important”, he adds. He also advises that you get a stress test so you can know what your maximum heart rate is, and be aware of your limits. As for this 64 year old, he has resumed his active lifestyle, walking 3 miles almost every morning, and taking spin classes 3-4 evenings a week. When asked if he intends to slow down, the answer was simple…”not anytime soon”.

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