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The Most Important Thing I Did After My Heart Attack, According to Survivors

We asked heart attack survivors to tell us their personal stories about the lifestyle changes they made after having a heart attack.

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Learn from the people who’ve been there

More than 1.5 million people will suffer a heart attack or stroke this year, reports the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; heart disease remains the number one killer of Americans. The good news is that more people are surviving heart attacks—a few decades ago, more than half of people who suffered a heart attack died; these days, more than 90 percent survive. But to prevent future trouble—or avoid a heart attack altogether—making some lifestyle changes is crucial. Here are the lessons heart attack survivors have learned.

The-Most-Important-Thing-I-Did-After-My-Heart-Attack-According-to-SurvivorsCourtesy Michael Prince Photography

Check your cholesterol

Though he was the picture of health on the outside, Bob Harper, The Biggest Loser Star and celebrity personal trainer, collapsed in the gym at 51. “I was on the ground dead,” he said on the TODAY show. His biggest lesson from surviving a heart attack? “Know what is going on with your body from the inside out—just because you look healthy on the outside, doesn’t mean you aren’t at risk,” he says. “The genetic issue that I have relates to my cholesterol. It is called lipoprotein(a). When you go to the doctor to get your cholesterol checked, make sure that he or she doesn’t only check your HDL and your LDL, but also your Lp(a).” Harper has since created Survivors Have Heart program to raise awareness about heart disease. Learn more about medical tests for the silent symptoms of heart disease.

The-Most-Important-Thing-I-Did-After-My-Heart-Attack-According-to-SurvivorsCourtesy Steve Rice

Prioritize exercise

Steve Rice thought he was healthy… until he had a heart attack on a ski trip at the age of 32. Since then, he started working out seven days a week. This doesn’t mean a simple midday walk. It means sweat. Rice spends at least a half-hour on a bike or rowing machine. The benefits to his heart health are twofold: His weight has dropped from 192 pounds to 165 pounds and he says his daily sweat sessions “release any tension and stresses of the day.” Here are 44 things heart doctors do to protect their own hearts.

The-Most-Important-Thing-I-Did-After-My-Heart-Attack-According-to-SurvivorsCourtesy Kim Smoots This Twins Lense

Volunteer to spread awareness

For six years after she had her heart attack at the age of 42, Jodi Hunt Jackson was plagued by self-doubt and constant worry. She would go to sleep afraid she wouldn’t wake up the next day. She battles with what if’s (What if I had eaten healthier? What if I had exercised more?). “It has been a long battle to just learn to accept and move on and learn to live differently going forward.” Then she started volunteering with the American Heart Association with Go Red for Women. “I was able to meet other women my age that had suffered massive cardiac events be it a heart attack, stroke, or cardiac arrest. It was such a relief to find out I wasn’t alone and there were other women in similar situations.” (Here’s how to tell the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest.)

The-Most-Important-Thing-I-Did-After-My-Heart-Attack-According-to-SurvivorsCourtesy Dawna Nelson

Eat oats every morning

When Lisa Lee-Ranson was 34 years old, she had open-heart surgery and went through cardio rehab. The West Virginia native and project manager for the healthcare industry says after her surgery, she started to eat instant oatmeal for a quick high-fiber, cholesterol-reducing on-the-go breakfast. Twenty years later, she’s still eating oatmeal daily, but now she makes it at home from scratch and stirs in a scoop of heart-healthy peanut butter for added protein.

The-Most-Important-Thing-I-Did-After-My-Heart-Attack-According-to-SurvivorsCourtesy American Heart Association

Work less

A heart disease survivor from The American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women, Lilly Rocha used to plan 150 events a year, keeping two suitcases packed at once so she could fly home to her California high rise and take off right away. “I was working 60 to 80 hours a week with no perspective on what’s important in life.” Then at 37 years old, she had a heart attack and reevaluated her life. Sure she had a lot of money in the bank, but what was she working for? She decided to start her own business to have more control over her hours and make time for her new perspective on what matters: love, health, and family. Now, at 46, she’s never been healthier—or happier. Learn the heart-attack prevention tips every woman must know.

The-Most-Important-Thing-I-Did-After-My-Heart-Attack-According-to-SurvivorsCourtesy Jon Leiberman

Take a boxing class

On the way to the emergency room for a heart attack, Jon Lieberman handed his phone to his girlfriend and asked her to tell his seven-year-old son that, “daddy loves him.” He survived and, to make sure he would live for decades to come, the first thing Lieberman did after his heart attack was hire a personal trainer to help amp up his exercise routine. He worked with trainers for two years before discovering boxing and boot camp group fitness classes. Today, you’ll find Lieberman at the boxing studio three to four mornings a week. He says the sense of accomplishment after a class is motivation. “You’re not sure you’re going to get through it, then an hour later you’re drenched with sweat and you’re done. It feels good physically and you know you’ve done something good for your body.”

The-Most-Important-Thing-I-Did-After-My-Heart-Attack-According-to-SurvivorsCourtesy Jeff Breece

Take risks

After systems analyst, Jeff Breece had a heart attack he experienced what’s called “disaster thinking.” Also known as catastrophic thinking, it’s defined as ruminating over worst-case scenarios. “It feels like I’ve always got a monkey on my back now. Every sensation in my chest, a twinge in my left arm, or any other kind of sensation can cause my mind and body to go into panic mode.” He found some solace in the traditional routes: meditation, therapy, and exercise, but the real breakthroughs came through travel. “It was in the second year that I created a plan to set challenges in my path that would confront my disaster thinking and take me to places that would enrich my life,” he says. He traveled to Seattle, Portland, New York, Chicago, and Orlando. But it was camping that really helped. “I started camp outdoors and sleep under the stars, far away from 911 and a reliable ambulance service…this was a big one for me,” he says. “It helped me to choose to live rather than let my brain involve me in doom and gloom scenarios.”

The-Most-Important-Thing-I-Did-After-My-Heart-Attack-According-to-SurvivorsCourtesy Joseph L. Murphy

Think about your heart

Melissa Murphy ran half-marathons. She did hot yoga. She ate lean meat. Still, in the absence of risk factors, she had a heart attack at age 40. “Having a heart attack really makes you question your mortality and ask what you can do improve your health so you can still be here when your kids have grandkids,” she says. For her, the answer to that question was “listen to your heart,” a phrase that sounds metaphorical but that Murphy, a former nurse who now works in the pharmaceutical industry and is blogger behind Heart Mom 2010, takes literally. She used to think of her heart as a place in her body that holds her emotion, but now she thinks of her it as a physical vessel for monitoring her stress, she says. She constantly checks in with it: How does my heart feel today? Do I have chest pain? If she does, she knows, it’s her body’s way of saying, “Okay/enough” and it’s time to dial back on her activities and focus on reducing stress.

Follow these tips to have your most heart-healthy day.

The-Most-Important-Thing-I-Did-After-My-Heart-Attack-According-to-SurvivorsCourtesy Atlantic Health System

Take a mind-body approach

Six years ago, on a cross-country move from New York to Montana, Jeff Seamans heart stopped in South Dakota. His doctor recommended a complete lifestyle change to help him recover, but it wasn’t until Seamans tried Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease through an outpatient program that he learned what his doctor really meant. Hosted by the Atlantic Health System/Chambers Center for Well Being in New Jersey, the program emphasized the power of simple lifestyle changes to improve heart health, and it helped Seamans lose 20 pounds in nine weeks—and he has continued to shed weight. “I have tried to make changes that I thought would make a difference in my cardiac health,” he says. “I have learned that it takes much more than just diet and exercise to beat this disease. There are four components: diet, exercise, love and support, and stress reduction.” Check out more secrets that cardiologists want you to know about heart disease.