According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death and disability for women in the United States. While it’s easy to forget about the importance of heart health, it’s crucial that we pay attention and take steps toward self-care and making the switch to a heart-healthy lifestyle.
Fortunately, the Parkview Heart Institute is here to help. The annual Her Heart Challenge program offers women a personalized approach to decreasing their risk of heart disease and overcoming the health barriers standing in their way. With its close-knit structure and atmosphere, the program empowers women to make lasting lifestyle changes by connecting them to resources, professionals and like-minded individuals. For an inside look, we asked Dawn Neace to share her experience on the 12-week wellness initiative and the positive impact it had on her life.
How did you learn about the Her Heart Challenge?
I learned of the Her Heart Challenge from an email that went out to all employees describing the program. It wasn’t anything I knew I needed until I read through the information and realized what the program was all about. Suddenly, I knew I had to be a part of it. I loved that the program wasn’t just going to tell me to lose weight. It was going to educate me on how to live a healthy lifestyle, overcome my risk factors and the best ways to keep my heart healthy. It was a partnership. They were going to teach me, not lecture me.
What were some of the barriers you experienced to a healthy lifestyle?
Honestly, I lacked motivation. I needed a plan, a jumping-off point to start a healthier lifestyle, but I had no clue where to start and felt overwhelmed trying to figure it out. I didn’t know how to set realistic, attainable goals.
Was there one thing that really prompted you to apply for the program?
Yes, the information in the company-wide email truly resonated with me. I knew I had some of the risk factors for heart disease and needed to do something about it. I was also motivated to get healthy because my first grandchild had been born, and I was finally ready to learn what I needed to do so I would be around to watch her grow. I also loved that the program was for other women just like me. We would all be going through this process together. I wasn’t going to do this alone.
What were your hopes and expectations going into the program?
I hoped that I would learn how to live a healthier lifestyle. I didn’t want any fad diets. I expected the program would give me the tools and help me network with those who could help me reach my goals. I wanted to learn how to be healthy. I knew I had to eat right and exercise, but what did that mean? I wanted to know what foods were right for me, which types of exercise I needed, and for how long? I hoped the program would teach me those things.
How did the challenge help you improve and overcome the obstacles you were facing?
I learned how to set SMART goals. I was familiar with setting goals but quickly realized that they were not attainable ones, and when I failed, I would end up quitting altogether. But, with the help of the program, I learned to adapt, adjust and start small. Eventually, I began to feel more confident in reaching those smaller goals and learned to check in weekly, adjusting as needed. I learned to give myself grace if I didn’t meet a particular objective. Instead of giving up, I would try again.
The program also taught me how to live a healthier lifestyle. We had the opportunity to meet with a nutritionist, cardiologist, physical therapist and mental health professional who taught us mindfulness and why it’s essential to navigate our health journey. Through the program, I also discovered I had type 2 diabetes. I didn’t realize it until the labs we had done as part of the program showed an elevated A1C. Thankfully, I now have my diabetes under control with my primary care provider’s help, a balanced diet, exercise and medication.
Do you have any goals for the future?
Yes, my main goal is still the same as it was when I joined the program. I want to be around to see my grandchildren grow up. I want to be active and be able to play with them. I want to be the fun grandma!
Did you discover any surprising benefits of the Her Heart challenge?
Yes! Roughly, one or two months after the program ended, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even though the program focuses on heart health, I utilized the tools I learned to aid in my cancer journey. The other surprising benefits of the program were:
- Friendship: The friends I made in the program were amazing. Their friendship and support were incredible!
- Mindfulness: The mindfulness techniques we learned from Dave Johnson were so helpful. They helped me deal and cope with the added stress of a cancer diagnosis.
- Health management: Since my diabetes diagnosis during the program, I’ve been able to manage and control it during my cancer journey, which was one less worry I had to think about during treatment.
- Nutrition: The nutrition we had discussed and learned during the program was beneficial when dealing with and battling cancer.
- Exercise: The guidance Mark O’Shaughnessy, MD, PPG - Cardiology, gave on moving more and how necessary it was for our heart health came into play when dealing with my cancer. I was already moving more and exercising by the end of the program, which aided in my recovery post-surgery.
I’m proud to say I put everything I learned from the Her Heart Challenge into place and focused on these tools even more once I found out I had cancer. I monitored everything I put into my body, trying to regain my strength. Fortunately, I was able to come out of cancer much healthier than when I went into it. I also tried to set clear, realistic goals while giving myself grace if I didn’t always meet them. Today, I am happy to say I am cancer-free, my diabetes is well controlled and I am 20 pounds lighter!
Is there a part of the program that will continue to influence your life in the future?
Yes, the friendships I made during my time in the Her Heart Challenge three years ago still influence my life today. We have a private Facebook page that most of us are still active on, keeping in touch with one another.
Another part of the program that will continue to influence me was one of the retreat activities. We had to buddy up and row a canoe out on the lake. Normally, I would never have volunteered for this and would have refused to do it, but I had promised myself to try everything during the program. I found that I loved it! Because of this challenge, I had the courage to go canoeing with my son around Crystal Springs when I helped chaperone his band trip to Florida. I was so glad I could join my son and the other kids on this class trip, a memory I wouldn’t have made if it weren’t for the Her Heart Challenge.
I also still live by the mantra I created while in the program. Mine was “I’m worth it!” I didn’t want to feel guilty for putting myself and my needs first for once. And, with my cancer journey, I added another mantra, “I will love myself today for who I am today.” I wanted to make sure I tackle any body image issues head-on. Today, I am in the best physical and mental place I’ve been in quite a while.
If someone is considering applying for the Her Heart Challenge, what would you say to them?
If you are considering this program, then you already know it would benefit you. I suggest you be willing, open and honest with yourself. Love yourself enough to make self-care a priority. You will not regret it! Plus, you’ll make lifelong friends along the way.