Listen to Your Heart

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Listen to Your Heart, heart health month

Are you more afraid of getting cancer than heart disease? If so, you’re not alone. According to the American Heart Association, while it’s true that heart disease is the No.1 killer in women, only 1 in 5 American women believe that it is her greatest health threat.

My client Ellen shared her story with me: “I was plain scared to see the doc and possibly get bad news. Serious cardiovascular disease runs in my family and I’ve seen numerous reports of women my age dying far more frequently from cardiovascular disease than breast cancer.”

“By the time I was 52, I had put off a consult with my doctor for five years.  I was feeling fine and just too ‘busy’ to fit it in, but common sense finally prevailed.  Was I shocked to learn that my total cholesterol count was 277, when only five years ago it was 170!”

Ellen’s doctor told her that this often happens to postmenopausal women.  When women lose the protective effect of estrogen, chronic diseases begin to surface. Beginning around age 30, all the physiological systems of the body begin a subtle decline, which can affect our health in our 50s and 60s. While the signals of aging are weak but persistent, we can defend against heart disease with a hearty offense.

The best defense against heart disease includes:

  • Get regular screenings and know your numbers. While many women know their wedding weight and pants size, they are less savvy about cholesterol and blood pressure readings. These silent conditions may only reveal themselves when they’ve reached a critical point (as in Ellen’s story above). Stay on top of the game by getting regular checkups.
  • Watch for tell-tale risk factors of heart disease in women.  Menopause, age, family history, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity all raise your risk of heart attack.
  • Discover how lifestyle robbers may be silently stealing your heart health.
  • Smoking:  Women who smoke are 25% more likely to have heart attacks than men who do. Any and all smoking damages blood vessels, raises blood pressure, and can lead to blood clots.  If you smoke, quit!
  • Depression, social isolation and loneliness can double your chances of heart disease. A positive outlook on life is protective – laugh a lot, have a sense of humor, be optimistic.
  • Broken heart syndrome, known medically as stress-induced cardiomyopathy, is caused by a sudden release of stress hormones following very emotional events like divorce, death of a loved one, loss of job or money, a bad accident or a natural disaster.  This temporarily stuns the heart and can cause symptoms that mimic a heart attack, but quick treatment can lead to a full recovery.
  • Stress has the same negative effects on the body as fatty foods. Of most concern is chronic stress, which taxes the body over time, affecting your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, brain chemistry blood sugar levels, and hormonal balance. It exposes your body to unhealthy, persistently elevated levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Studies also link stress to changes in the way blood clots, which increases the risk of heart attack.
  • Prolonged sitting: When you’re sitting, the heart must work harder to circulate blood and oxygen through your system.  The decreased blood flow to the legs causes the blood vessels to stiffen, increasing blood pressure and raising the risk for hardening of the arteries, a cause of heart attacks and strokes. Get up, stretch and move every hour…or at least circle your ankles and tap your toes to get blood flowing in your legs.
  • Weight and belly fat: Excess weight can result in high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes and a reluctance to be physically active. Fat storage in the belly that creates an apple shape is ”toxic” because the enzymes found in abdominal fat are very active, allowing fat to be dumped into the blood stream, contributing to high cholesterol levels.
  • Spot the symptoms of heart attacks in women.  About 435,000 women have heart attacks in the U.S. yearly. Women are more likely than men to have shortness of breath, and pain in their jaw, back or upper belly. They tend to have stomach trouble, including feeling nauseous and vomiting.  They may also feel very tired, lightheaded or dizzy.  Men are more likely to break out in a cold sweat and to feel pain move down their left arm. 

My client Francesca had open-heart surgery two years ago at the age of 60, during which her rib cage was sawed open and her heart stopped while being repaired. When I asked her what message she would relay to women about heart health, she replied, “Listen to your heart!”

Get Physical to Protect Your Precious Heart

  • Cardio (or aerobic) exercise:  Regular cardio exercise can lower your blood pressure, improve your cholesterol levels, reduce body fat and enhance circulation. Cardiovascular stamina is associated with a stronger heart muscle, slower heart rate, decreased chance of heart attack, and a greater chance of surviving if you do suffer a heart attack.
  • Lifting weights: The heart is a muscle that gets stronger and more efficient with training, pumping more blood with each beat. Strength training, like cardio exercise, can improve the function of the heart and lungs and provide additional benefits such as:
  • Favorably modify risk factors associated with heart disease.
    • Ease the demand on the heart in response to physical or emotional stress.
    • Build lean body mass and aid in weight control.
    • Enhance glucose metabolism.
    • Reduce your risk for diabetes.

Remember, always get your doctor’s clearance before starting an exercise program or increasing the intensity.  This column is not intended as medical advice.

(c) Copyright – Joan L. Pagano. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.


  • Joan Pagano has specialized in strength training for women since 1988 – training, teaching, and writing books on the subject, including Strength Training Exercises for Women (DK, 2014). When the health benefits of strength training started making headlines in the 1990s, and in particular how weight training could protect the bones and prevent osteoporosis, it was a natural segue for her. At that time, Joan was developing and delivering fitness training guidelines for osteoporosis to national audiences of exercise professionals. Currently Joan is recognized by the industry as a leading authority on exercise program design for osteoporosis. She is certified as an Exercise Physiologist by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and is on the Ambassadors Leadership Council for the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Visit Joan at:

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