Breathing A Sigh Of Relief

Have you ever heard good news from a doctor that just made you take a deep breath and breathe a sigh of relief? Well that’s what happened to me last week. Before I tell you what the news was, I’d like to share the back story.

A few years ago, I decided it would be a good idea to get a stress test. You know the kind where the doctor (a cardiologist) puts you on a treadmill or a bicycle to test the health and functionality of your heart. I figured that since running a company was a stressful job (and I had always heard that public company executives had annual physicals), it would be a good idea for me to get a stress test to see how I was doing health-wise.

My regular doctor referred me to a cardiologist in my local community. When I went to his office for my first EKG and stress test, I realized quickly that he did not have a warm and friendly bedside manner. Ironically, being in his office seemed stressful to me. During my first visit, he proclaimed “you have high blood pressure!” I knew that I did not have high blood pressure, but it turns out I have “white coat syndrome” which means when I go to the doctor (and see someone in a white coat), my blood pressure goes up.

So, my first assignment from my doctor was to go home, go to Costco, buy a blood pressure cuff and test my blood pressure twice a day–morning and night. I was told to keep a log of the readings and return to his office in a month. Of course, my blood pressure turned out to be in the normal range, so he said I could come back in 12 months for another EKG and stress test.

The following year, he noticed that my cholesterol had edged up to over 200 (having a total cholesterol count less than 200 is most desirable and considered in the healthy range). I told him I had no interest in taking medication to lower my cholesterol (like many physicians that was his first suggestion). I asked him to tell me what actions I could take that did not involve prescription medication to lower my cholesterol.

He told me to exercise every single day. Eight days a week. He said I needed to do cardio exercise between 30 and 75 minutes each day, and keep my heart rate between 120-140 (based on my age). Then he told me to lower my animal protein intake and eat a plant-based diet to help me drop some excess weight. That wasn’t hard for me, as I have eaten a mostly plant-based diet for many years and regularly snack on Jicama, Watermelon Radish and Shishito Peppers which are all excellent sources of vitamin C and fiber. He told me to come back in six months.

It felt as if it was punishment to have to come back in six months, as it meant I would have to log my blood pressure for the two weeks before my visit so I could prove to the doctor that my blood pressure was in the normal range, just in case my “white coat syndrome” kicked in. And honestly, going to the doctor for a stress test was stressful!

The next time I went back, I reported that I had been diligently doing my daily exercise, but honestly, I never really pushed myself. I sweated a little bit, but I never totally hit my maximum potential. I hadn’t really lost any weight, and he once again suggested a solution would be to take medicine to lower my cholesterol. I told him I was really committed to lowering my cholesterol and improving my health. I asked him for any other suggestions. This time, he suggested I start doing intermittent fasting and reducing my total daily calorie intake.

Intermittent fasting. I had no idea how I was going to NOT eat when I got up in the morning and to hold off consuming any food until noon each day. But that’s what he told me to do, and he said scientific studies show this was incredibly effective.

I’ll never forget my kids’ reactions when I told them I was going to start intermittent fasting each day, only drinking water and black coffee until noon. “Good luck with that” was their exact comment.

What I learned is that the key to intermittent fasting is all mental. Instead of focusing on “no food,” I prepared myself by thinking about eating at 12 noon. I drank tons of water and made sure I kept myself very busy in the morning. Meetings and phone calls were my friends. It wasn’t hard to skip making breakfast in the morning, as that gave me an extra 20 minutes, and once I arrived at work, I kept myself so busy that the time flew by. I also found I wasn’t as hungry as I had been previously and I cut back on the amount of food I ate. Previously when I had embraced a plant-based (vegan) eating plan, I always felt hungry. This time I felt light and energetic.

And I really amped up my exercise regime. If you’ve been reading my blog for the last year, you know that my partner Jack is an exercise maniac. At age 72, he still runs 4-8 miles a day, rides the Peloton and the Concept 2 Rower at least once a day, does marathons, Ironman’s, etc. With him as my exercise partner, and quasi-fitness coach, I have been able to complete three half marathons in the last year, rode the Peloton and used the rower almost daily, in addition to resuming swimming laps as a form of regular exercise. I’m not totally plant-based with my meals, as I enjoy fish a few times a week (I’ve found I really do need that protein).

During the last year, since my last visit to the cardiologist, my body changed. I hadn’t really noticed anything until friends started commenting that I looked a lot thinner and more fit. Then I started to notice how my clothes were fitting differently, and when I looked at photos of myself during the last few months, I was surprised to see a thinner, more fit self.

So, back to the doctor I went last week. When I handed him my two-week log of my blood pressure when I walked in the office, I commented to him, “some days my blood pressure was really low … like 96/66 … I am kind of concerned. Plus my resting heart rate has gone from the low 70s to 58-60 bpm.” Dr. Rizi commented, “The lower, the better on your blood pressure! Don’t be worried about that.”

He gave me the EKG and stress test. When he walked in to give me the results, for the very first time he had a big smile on his face. He was pleased I had dropped about 12 pounds in the last year, my waist size was a lot smaller and that my EKG and stress test were amazing! His exact words were, “Everything is working perfectly! You couldn’t have better results.”

He then told me to come back in a year. I asked him, why do I need to come to see you every year? Several doctors I had spoken with questioned why I was continuing to get a stress test every year since my results had been normal. Dr. Rizi told me there are two philosophies. First, you can wait until you have a cardiac issue and then try to treat it. Or you can prophylactically get tested each year to monitor your heart health. I also think it’s a way to keep yourself honest—driving your mindset to success, since you are going to get tested each year.

When I left his office last week, I breathed a deep sigh of relief and satisfaction. I knew that the reason my results were so improved was that I had worked hard to exercise at least one hour every day (I track it daily). I pushed myself to sweat, made it a goal to do at least two forms of exercise a day (rower + Peloton, or rower + walk/run or, swim + rower, etc.). I also weigh myself every morning as a way to keep myself honest. When I’ve overindulged at dinner or had wine, I see it on the scale the next day, which forces me to be more diligent the following day.

As I reflect back on the last few years of seeing the cardiologist, I realize that optimal health is truly a combination of what you eat and how much you exercise. You cannot exercise yourself out of a poor diet. It’s a combination of food AND diet. And sleep of course. I’ve also managed my schedule to get an average of 8+ hours of sleep a night.

It’s a great feeling to have a good handle on my health and to know how to maintain it. How about you? Are you procrastinating going to the doctor to find out if you really are overweight? Or do you know your cholesterol or blood pressure are too high? Do you dread the thought of a doctor telling you what you already know deep inside? Get ahead of the game now. Start walking daily, even for 30 minutes at a time.

Take baby steps and try intermittent fasting—don’t eat until 10:00 a.m., then you can work up to not eating until noon. Cut back on your total calories consumed.

Believe me, the ability to take that deep breath, that sigh of relief, to know that you are in outstanding health is worth it!

Karen