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Dr. Heather Ross says her near-death experience while scaling the highest peak in Antarctica helps her understand how her patients feel. (heather Ross)
Dr. Heather Ross says her near-death experience while scaling the highest peak in Antarctica helps her understand how her patients feel. (heather Ross)

Physician’s heart-healthy prescription: Exercise addiction Add to ...

From a young age, it has been my drug of choice. A daily self-prescription that I have spent the better part of my professional and personal life recommending. While I wouldn’t call myself a full-fledged addict, I do regularly attempt to up my dosage – to see how far I can go without going overboard.

My drug of choice is exercise.

One of my earliest memories was going on a bike trip with my older brother. Just the two of us. I was 12. We biked from Montreal to Vermont. And this adventure was approved by our parents!

Skiing and cycling were my favourite activities as a kid. I saved up and bought my first pink Steve Bauer 10-speed bike when I was 11. It was one of my best days.

I have been in practice as a cardiologist for well over 20 years. I have had to tell thousands of patients their failing heart will not recover, and have watched hundreds more experience seemingly miraculous recoveries thanks to a donor heart arriving in the nick of time and the subsequent transplant seamlessly replacing the “old” heart.

What drives me to exercise as often as I can is that I want to ensure my heart is in the best shape it can be – just in case. In case my own ticker or some other part of my body is injured, a fit, strong heart will likely make any treatment and recovery easier.

I speak from experience. I stared death squarely in the eye near the top of the highest peak in Antarctica a few years ago during a fundraising mission for heart research and organ donation. My lungs began filling with fluid, breathing became almost impossible and my oxygen levels fell to the lowest points I have ever experienced.

High-altitude pulmonary edema almost killed me.

Coming close to death on a frigid mountain is seared in my memory. Rather ironically, but fortunately, it also thrust me closer to understanding what my patients with heart failure endure. I don’t ever want to go “there” again. And I try, along with my incredibly talented colleagues at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, to do whatever I can to keep our patients from going “there.” It is not always possible.

As a woman living in Canada, I still shudder at the statistics: Heart disease is the number one killer of Canadian women. You read that correctly. More women in this country die of heart disease than of breast cancer.

A diagnosis of heart disease is a life sentence. For people with a heart condition, walking up a short flight of stairs, making a meal, putting on a coat – suddenly these mundane daily tasks become like running a marathon. But heart disease can be prevented. So why go there in the first place?

Excuses are easy to come by and even easier to adopt as habit. I have every excuse not to take my daily drug. My workdays average 12 to 14 hours of seeing patients, pursuing research, teaching rounds, mentoring medical residents and fellows, performing on-call duties in the intensive care unit, meeting with families of patients to share what is often grim news, looking at a chart and pinpointing why a twenty-something patient has a failing heart. But. I. Find. Time.

My drug, after all, is my lifeline. This country we live in is the best playground in the world. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing in winter, hiking and biking in summer – it doesn’t get any better.

Here’s how to embed heart health into your lifestyle.

1. Ask yourself, “Is my life worth an hour a day?”

2. Start slow, pace yourself, maintain, sustain. This applies to nutrition, fitness or lifestyle changes.

3. Set a goal of 10 minutes a day of physical activity. Slowly work up to 150 minutes a week. Walk first – there’s no need to run.

4. Remember, exercise does not only mean hitting the gym – it can also be: parking your car farther away from the entrance or exit to your workplace; climbing stairs rather than taking the elevator; adopting standing rather than sitting meetings; moving every 30 minutes from a sitting position.

5. Plan and batch-cook meals for the week. Freezing make-ahead meals ensures you have healthy nutrition choices and frees up time for movement and exercise.

6. Address your stress. Take inventory of what causes you stress, examine what changes can be made, tweak your stress management and coping techniques, and ask for help. Do not do it alone.

7. Combine movement with other activities you enjoy. For example, move the treadmill in front of your television. Listen to music on your daily walk. If playing a sport trumps aerobics classes, do that instead.

8. Reach out to friends or neighbours and exercise together. Two or more people is not a crowd. It is comforting and helps support accountability.

9. Build your daily movement or exercise habit into your calendar. Once this time is blocked off and in writing, nothing should change it.

10. Sleep more, not less. Seven to nine hours is recommended for adults. No excuses.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Dr. Heather Ross is a cardiologist at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, University Health Network (UHN), director of the Ted Rogers Centre of Excellence in Heart Function, president of the Canadian Cardiovascular Society and one of the world’s leading heart transplant physicians

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