Greg Alexander

Heart Health: Taking Charge

Mason-Dixon Arrive, May 2009

May signals the winding down of school and the heart of spring’s beautiful displays of vibrant colors and delightful weather. And speaking of hearts, May is also a time to celebrate the wonderful, important women in our lives – Mothers. This Mother’s Day, we focus on women who have taken charge of their health and have exhibited a commitment to heart health and living a healthy life. Heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 and No. 3 killers of American women respectively, and women across the Mason-Dixon region have heeded the call to make dietary and lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of heart disease, live an active life and simply feel better by getting up and getting moving.

Laura Ruth, a 43-year-old middle school music teacher in Aberdeen, made a commitment to working out 2 1/2 years ago at the urging of her mother. “My Mom had recently joined the Curves gym in Aberdeen and started nagging me to join,” she laughs, “as only a mother can do. And, I am glad she did.” Laura says she had some heart issues she needed to take care of, so she also joined Curves (, a nationwide chain of women’s gyms that features 30-minute fitness routines that provide a total body workout through the combination of aerobic exercise for weight loss and strength training for toned muscles.

“I had some weight issues and high blood pressure. Also, diabetes and heart disease runs in my family, so I had to be cautious of that,” she says. “I do circuit training, and the girls who work at the gym have been great. When I am on the ‘recovery pads,’ they show me specialized exercises that focus on my legs and abs.” Laura says she now works out three to four times a week. “You have to make time for you! I also joined Weight Watchers in September to help with weight loss. It’s been a good year!”

Laura’s mother Ethel, a 68-year-old retired nurse from Aberdeen, says her inspiration was different that her daughter’s. “Three years ago, we were planning a trip to China. When I took a look at the itinerary, I noticed a lot of walking, not least of all, of course, The Great Wall of China. There was no way I was going to miss out on walking The Great Wall, but I realized that I was not in the shape I needed to be in. So, I joined the gym,” says the mother of three, who has also convinced her daughters, daughter-in-law and two sisters to join Curves.

“I really needed to increase my stamina for the trip, but I’ve realized that I have gained so much more – my hip pain is gone and I’ve lost weight,” says Ethel, who works out three to four times a week. “I was also concerned about my heart health, so I had to change my diet, too. I’ve reduced the amount of fat intake and have increased the number of whole grains, fresh vegetables and fresh fruit in my diet, as well as decreasing the portion size for meals.”

Baltimore City resident Maureen Mooney says her “Ah-ha” moment came via her 30th birthday. “I turned 30 and knew that my metabolism was about to start slowing down, and I wanted to lose weight,” says the 34-year-old who works for a public accounting firm in Washington, D.C. “I had tried lots of diets like Slim Fast, and had realized that the only way I was going to lose weight and improve my overall health was to commit to a dedicated, structured exercise routine.” With this in mind, Mooney started running regularly and has since completed the Baltimore Half-Marathon twice, the Cherry Blossom 10-Mile Run twice, as well as the Army 10-Mile Run and the annual Turkey Trot on Long Island, N.Y., where Mooney grew up. “Although my initial goal was to lose weight, I was very conscious of my heart health, too. My dad has high blood pressure and high cholesterol, although he has lowered it recently. I now make lunch and dinner for myself and try to avoid processed foods. I definitely think of my heart health when choosing my meals now.”

Mooney’s dedication to exercise will definitely help her heart, too. According to the American Heart Association, regular physical activity provides many benefits such as reducing the risk of heart disease; controlling blood cholesterol, diabetes and obesity; and lowering blood pressure, as well as building stronger bones, reducing stress and increasing energy levels. The AHA recommends that adult women should get at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity on most days of the week.

Although she was meeting many of her health goals from running, Mooney decided to join a gym about a year and a half ago. “I wanted to complement my running with some strength training, so I started working one-on-one with a personal trainer. I felt like I had the running routine down but wanted to start lifting weights to tone my muscles, too. Also, when it’s really cold or hot outside, it’s tough to force yourself to run outside because the elements are working against you. Joining a gym eliminated any excuses for not working out,” says Mooney, who continues to run outside regularly.

Mooney’s fiancé, Lewis Atkin, also recently joined her gym. “Sometimes we work out together before work. It’s a great way for us to spend time together and share a different type of activity together. However,” she adds, “It was definitely his decision. Working out is a decision you have to make for yourself.”

Rochelle Cohen, a 57-year-old Owings Mills resident who owns her own public relations agency, says that 30-plus years of working with hospitals, health care institutions and fitness centers provided the knowledge she needed to dedicate to living a heart healthy lifestyle. She also had a definite inspiration to do so. “We have heart disease and high cholesterol in our family, especially on my mother’s side. My grandmother on my mother’s side died of a heart attack, and my mother and other grandmother have high cholesterol,” says Cohen.

“And, despite that we eat very healthy – lots of fruits and vegetables, foods low in fat or fat free and little to no fast food – both of my grown children, as well as myself, battle high cholesterol. I try to set a good example for my kids, so in addition to taking my medication, I intensely work out three times a week. I still struggle to keep my cholesterol level down, and it’s a constant juggling act between work, family and fitness.

“However, I try to add little exercise routines into my everyday life. I walk my dog, ride my bike when I can and walk briskly whenever I can. Friends of mine say, ‘Slow down; you’re walking too fast.’ But I have to walk fast; anything to keep my heart rate up.”

Bel Air resident and mother of three boys Diane Dietz, 65, who works at the District Court in Harford County, also knows the importance of heart health. “My doctor detected a Mitral valve prolapse a few years ago, and, although it’s harmless in most people, I still became more aware of my heart,” she says. A common heart disorder, Mitral valve prolapse, according to the Mayo Clinic, occurs when the valve between your heart's left upper chamber (left atrium) and the left lower chamber (left ventricle) doesn't close properly. When the left ventricle contracts, the valve’s leaflets bulge (prolapse) upward or back into the atrium. The disorder affects slightly more than 2 percent of adults in the United States.

“I joined the Curves gym in Bel Air right when it opened five years ago. I had also suffered a back injury and wanted to strengthen my back. I now work out four to five times a week by walking and strengthening different muscle groups. I also just completed the Weight Management program and have lost nine pounds!” Also, I love the 30 minutes I get to myself. I am doing this for myself”

Bettie Foell, a 72-year-old Bel Air resident and mother of two grown children and one grandson, says that she enjoys working out in the morning. “I walk three to four times a week, usually about a mile and a half, use the machines and do lots of floor stretches. I have high blood pressure, but I have successfully lowered my cholesterol. I work out regularly and now look more closely at food labels and cook healthier meals. I’m also better educating myself about fitness and nutrition. With heart disease, you have to be proactive about your own health. It’s the only way to go.”

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