Living With Heart

They took back their power and reclaimed their health

Living With Heart

It’s easy to roll your eyes when you’re told, “You can do anything!” But from an 11-year-old walking across America to a woman who lost 100 pounds, these people did exactly that after staring a heart disease scare in the face.

A serious medical diagnosis such as diabetes or heart disease can cripple someone’s dreams. But for these men, women, and children, it instead lit a fire in their souls and turned them into champions and advocates. Their health transformations just might inspire you, too.

Tanisha Shanee

Getting back control

“I’ve always been overweight,” recalls Tanisha Shanee. “I never fully understood why I should get healthy.”

That changed when Shanee had a stroke and found out she had extremely high blood pressure. Later, she stepped on her bathroom scale. “I received two letters—‘OL’— instead of numbers!” she exclaims. That meant Shanee was over the scale’s 350 lb (160 kg) weight limit.

“I swear I went through all stages of grief in two seconds,” says Shanee. “I felt disappointed in myself and how I allowed myself to lose that much control in my life.”

Shanee immediately purged her kitchen of all her unhealthy snacks. The next day, she began doing living room workouts and researching different recipes. “I had chronic pain, so I found recipes for inflammation,” Shanee explains. “I found green smoothies for lowering blood pressure.”

She also learned to deal with her triggers, including stress and anger. “I always tell people to stop thinking just about weight loss,” she says. “Look at everything that’s attached to it!”

And it worked.

“In 362 days, I lost 100 pounds [45 kg],” says Shanee. “I’ll never forget the day that I had that stroke. I never want to experience not seeing a number on a scale again. Those are the two things that I replay in my mind to stay motivated. It’s not about being skinny. It’s about being the healthiest person.”

The beat-by-beat statistics

In the next seven minutes, someone in Canada will die from heart disease, making it one of the top causes of death in our country.

Matt Swain

Biking beyond the diagnosis

Matt Swain represented Toronto in the inaugural Bike Beyond coast-to-coast ride. He biked from New York City to San Francisco to share his story and raise money for a cure for type 1 diabetes, but he wasn’t always so outspoken.

“I was diagnosed on my 15th birthday,” says Swain. “That birthday was definitely not one for the books!”

Like most teenagers, he was focused on gaining independence and seeking adventure. “Having diabetes was something I wasn’t proud of,” he recalls. “I hid it from friends. It made me feel vulnerable and not as strong as I wanted to be.”

Over the years, Swain began to accept and even embrace his new life. “I wear an insulin pump and people would ask me questions,” he says. “I went from hating that question to having fun with it and using it to educate people.”

That’s when he was given the opportunity to be part of Bike Beyond—a program of the nonprofit organization Beyond Type 1. “I wanted to take even more control of my diabetes and inspire other people to not live in shame with the disease but thrive with it,” he says.

“Check your blood sugar and use that information to empower yourself to be able to say ‘yes’ to anything,” suggests Swain. He says the struggle to do what his friends do, even though it’s more difficult for him, makes him feel more powerful. “It’s something to be proud of,” Swain says.

The heart disease checklist

Nine out of 10 Canadians have at least one risk factor for heart disease. The more boxes you tick on this list, the higher your overall risks.

Risk factor How to reduce the risk
▢ Physical inactivity Get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day.
▢ High blood pressure Aim for more than 90/60 and less than 120/80.
▢ Diabetes It can multiply your risks by up to eight.
▢ Total cholesterol Keep it below 5.2 mmol/L.
▢ LDL cholesterol Depending on your current health, aim for 3.3 mmol/L or less.
▢ HDL cholesterol Maintain levels between 1 and 1.5 mmol/L or higher.

Michele Szymborski

Learning to invest in herself again

“Instead of focusing on my needs, I spent most of my time running around helping others,” says Michele Szymborski.

She was a single mom juggling a major corporate career while also caring for her 90-year-old grandfather. One day she was visiting her doctor. He told her she had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar. “I was a walking time bomb for a heart attack and stroke,” she says.

“I was worried for my daughter,” recalls Szymborski. “After spending so much time in my grandfather’s nursing home, I knew what that was like. I didn’t want my daughter to be in my shoes too young.”

Szymborski gives the analogy of how parents on an airplane need to put their oxygen mask on first. “I realized I needed to take care of my health first,” she says.

She started small, adjusting portion sizes and cutting back on sugar. After six months, she then started going on short walks. Then, she hired a personal trainer.

“It’s all about mindset,” she says. “When I told my trainer my weight-loss goal, she said I was unrealistic. But you have to believe in yourself.”

In the end, those small changes added up to big results and Szymborski lost 115 lbs (52 kg). She’s now a holistic nutritionist, helping others to rediscover their inner power and strength.

“As long as you’re consistent, a little bit every day changes your life,” she says.

5 supplements for heart health

Green tea

It may lower both total and LDL cholesterol.

Fibre

It can stabilize blood sugar and reduce diabetes risks.

Pomegranate juice

It is thought to improve heart health and lower blood pressure.

Omega-3 fatty acids

They may reduce heart disease risk and help manage high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

Coenzyme Q10

It may ease symptoms of cardiovascular disease.

Noah Barnes

Stepping up to the challenge

When he was 16 months old, Noah Barnes was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. “I was a new mom and I knew no one with diabetes,” says his mother, Joanne Barnes. “It felt like a blow to the gut.”

Today, Noah is 11 years old and nearing the end of a year-long journey to walk from Florida to Washington. It started after he watched a documentary on Canadian athlete Terry Fox, who ran across Canada to raise awareness and money for cancer research.

“Noah didn’t want to be diabetic anymore and learned that [the research community] needed money to find a cure,” says Joanne. Terry Fox’s Canadian adventures inspired him to replicate the journey in the US. He’ll set a world record as the youngest person to walk from coast to coast, and he hopes to celebrate at the Terry Fox Foundation in Vancouver, BC.

Along the way, Noah has been meeting politicians, researchers, and other children who have diabetes. And he’s doing everything he can to increase awareness, raise money, and do his part to eliminate the disease.

“The biggest lesson in this journey is that if you put your mind to anything, it can be done,” says Noah’s mom. “He’s a kid, walking 4,200 miles [6,759 km]. Think about that! He knows that once he completes it, he’ll make a difference in the world.”

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