It’s been over two years since fitness trainer Bob Harper went into cardiac arrest at a New York City gym. The then-51-year-old was revived by a stranger (who happened to be a doctor), and paramedics before being taken to the hospital where he was induced into a coma for two days. The former Biggest Loser host had what's known as a “widow-maker” heart attack — complete blockage in the left anterior descending artery (LAD) of the heart — which is about four times more deadly than other types. Since then, Harper has shared countless health tips to help people lower their risk of heart disease, but now he’s focused on something new: the emotional recovery post-heart attack that often goes unnoticed when discussing heart disease.
Harper has teamed up with AstraZeneca to spread the message behind Survivors Have Heart, a national support group-type program that celebrates survivorship and provides emotional help for heart attack survivors and their loved ones. The first event kicks off this summer in Tampa, Florida on June 5, 2019.
For Harper, the road to recovery first began with forgiving his body for “failing.” In an exclusive interview with DoctorOz.com, Harper shares what he’s learned about balancing the emotional fears and stress that come with surviving a heart attack and shares his tips on how you can move forward with balancing your mental health.
Lean On Your Doctors
“There’s such a mental aspect in recovery that people aren’t even aware of,” Harper says. “As a survivor you’ll think, ‘My body is better, but why is there a constant voice in the back of my head that’s saying, ‘What’s my heart rate? My heart is pounding—is that okay?’ The inner dialogue happens all the time.” As a result, Harper battled depression for months. “Imagine if you’ve been in a relationship where someone broke your heart and now they’re back,” he explains. “My heart got broken. I kept thinking, ‘You stopped on me and now you’re back? How do I know you aren’t going to stop on me again?’ I had to build that trust — that relationship with my heart — again.”
The 53-year-old couldn’t be more thankful that his medical team has been addressing mental health. “It’s been very much in the forefront,” he says. “At first when I’m sitting in my cardiologist’s office, they’re being very pragmatic, but I’m not; I’m emotional.” Harper encourages fellow survivors to open up to their physicians about their thoughts and feelings. “You’ve got to have trust in your healthcare providers — you’re not just a name on a chart,” he stresses. “I’m sure this has to be hard on doctors, but we need it. I need it.”
Take Advantage of Cardiac Rehabilitation
“For me, a huge, huge, part of rebuilding that trust came from [going to] cardiac rehab [a customized, out-patient exercise and counseling program that is medically supervised],” states Harper. “Being strapped up to heart monitors, watching my heart rate — just seeing my heart working was really helpful.” He adds that his early sessions, which included moderately peddling on a stationary bike and strolling on a treadmill, were very humbling. “Privately, I would have said humiliating, but I got over that quickly.” He credits the physical therapists for talking him “off the ledge” on the days he feared going home after rehab and having another heart attack. “I was there three days a week for months, and speaking with the therapists and other heart attack survivors slowly helped me feel more confident.”
Even though some of the health data is alarming, one statistic that’s posted on SurvivorsHaveHeart.com is inspiring: There are approximately 7.9 million heart attack survivors in the U.S. “Look at the survival rate and maybe it can somehow let you to start to exhale,” he says. “You’re not alone.”
Control What You Can
Once Harper “graduated” from cardiac rehab and got the okay from his MD to head back to his regular gym, he suffered from panic attacks. “All of a sudden, I wasn’t going to be in a confined area with other doctors,” he explains. To overcome this fear, he makes sure he’s in a gym where the fitness instructors are CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation) certified and that there is an AED (automated external defibrillator) on site. “It’s about having the practical things in place in order to give you peace of mind,” he continues. “I wouldn’t be here right now if I didn’t have someone around me at the time when I needed them the most.”
Find Ways to Quiet Your Mind
While he learned that reducing stress levels would be beneficial for both his emotional and physical health, Harper found himself in a catch-22 situation. After all, hardcore workouts had been his go-to coping mechanism. “Then all of a sudden that shifted, which is why those panic attacks were very real for me.” These days, the television personality achieves inner calmness by meditating (“I’ve been doing Bikram yoga that they call an open-eye meditation”), along with tapping into creative interests, such as cooking (“Rachael Ray has me cooking a lot and I love it!”), photography (“It’s very challenging, very fulfilling”), and reading (“I didn’t go to college, so now I’m getting acquainted with the Bronte Sisters, John Steinbeck, and F. Scott Fitzgerald”). “These are great hobbies because they take your mind someplace else,” he adds.
Be Here Now
Harper says it took him nearly one year after his life-altering event to stop focusing on the “what-ifs” and to start living in the moment. “None of us know what is out there waiting for us, so I choose to be optimistic,” he states. “As for me, I do what I’m told and I try not to sweat the big and the small things.” Repeating mantras, such as “It’s going to be okay,” remind him to appreciate that he’s been given a second chance at life. “You’re going to have the sh*ttest days ever and that’s okay because there will be better days ahead,” he continues. “It’s a journey I’m still on. It takes time.”
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