It took two nudges for Becky Deelstra to make healthy changes in her life.
The first was in 2017, when her father, who was in his early 60s, had a heart attack. Then he had another one a few months later. It was on par with his family history — his mother and sister had both had heart attacks.
Before then, Deelstra wasn’t too worried about her own heart.
“I just thought I was too young. You don’t hear about people having heart attacks in their 30s,” says Deelstra, now 40.
The second nudge was from her fiancé, Scott Kennedy. Kennedy, 44, is a long-distance runner who began about three years ago to lose weight and reduce anxiety. Both of those things happened, along with discovering a whole new lifestyle he’s embraced.
“Running has been a lot of self-care for me to work through some issues,” Kennedy says. “Sometimes I wish I could carry a notepad with me.”
Incorporated exercise into life
The family history combined with the role model of Kennedy pushed Deelstra to look hard at her health and fitness routines. In April 2018, she began to run after a friend mentioned she was doing a race.
“I really didn’t know what to do,” Deelstra says. She did research online, assured herself she belonged in the race as much as the next person and slowly built up her endurance with the help of Kennedy, who understood what it was like to start something new.
“When Becky was watching me do my thing, she saw my bad days, so she knew it wasn’t always roses,” Kennedy says. But she also saw him get up again the next day and keep trying — and that along with a shared interest in fitness kept her accountable.
According to Dr. Naveen Rajpurohit, a cardiologist with Sanford Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, what Deelstra did was exactly right: Take a look at her family history and the risks it creates, and then find a way to incorporate regular exercise into her life.
“You can’t outrun the genetics,” Rajpurohit says. “But you can do a lot of things to optimize things. Good diet and exercise to control our blood pressure, manage our diabetes, lower our stress levels.”
5 x 30 minutes
The single most important thing a person can do to lower their risk of heart disease is exercise, Rajpurohit says. The recommendation is five 30-minute sessions per week, and he says it doesn’t matter what someone does, as long as it’s something they’ll stick with.
“Everybody finds joy in different types of activity — anything someone loves to do and can continue to do can be great,” he says. “Simple things on a daily basis can really help with the heart.”
There’s one caveat, though: If you exercise in the morning and then sit all day, you might lose some of the benefits.
Rajpurohit recommends finding small ways to continue to be active: Take the stairs, go for a short walk, even just stretch at your desk for a while to move around a bit.
It’s easy to make a plan to fit in exercise, but much harder to stick to it. That’s where a training plan or partner can make a big difference, like it did for Kennedy and Deelstra.
“We have a shared interest,” Kennedy says.
Deelstra agrees and says the experience has brought them closer.
“My story isn’t the same as his story, and he understands that,” she says. “There’s no pressure to be the same.”
Another benefit of the shared interest is a reduction in stress for Deelstra and Kennedy –- there’s no conflict over training time because they both do it. Reducing stress matters for heart health.
“Day-to-day stress can lead to a lot of risk factors that can lead to heart disease,” Rajpurohit says. “It has a direct relationship to high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease. Or it has a relationship to blood sugar. Or our heart rate may be constantly up, and that can lead to palpitations.”
Any step in the right direction is a step worth taking, Rajpurohit says.
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