By Glenda Sexauer, as told to Hope Cristol
When I was 46, my husband, Steve, and I took a 25th anniversary trip to Hawaii. We stayed at a fancy hotel, where they give you all this free food and drink. But I just couldn’t eat. I was having trouble walking, too.
I’d recently been diagnosed with a thyroid disorder called Hashimoto’s disease, so I was used to feeling tired. But this fatigue felt different, much more severe.
On the way back home from our trip, I looked up my symptoms on the internet and laughed. “It says I have heart problems,” I told Steve. Then he laughed and said, “That would be funny since you’re always telling me I need to get healthy for my heart.”
A Surprise Diagnosis
I went to the doctor’s office soon after we got home. My regular doctor wasn’t in, which was probably for the best. I had somebody who didn’t know my medical history, so he asked a lot of questions and gave me an EKG.
Afterward, he told me to go straight to a nearby cardiology office. That’s when I learned I had heart failure. My eyes just kind of popped out of my head. I had no family history of heart disease and I’d always been fit.
You feel a loss of control when you get a diagnosis like that. I wanted to know everything I could do to get healthy, so I could stick around a long time for my sons and my family. Taking care of my heart became my top priority in life, and I was willing to do just about anything.
The cardiologist then told me there wasn’t much I could do besides take my medications and commit to a strict, heart-healthy lifestyle. I took that advice like my life depended on it, which may have been true.
Heart-Smart Diet Changes
I watch what I eat more than ever. It’s helped me figure out which foods make me feel unwell, like alcohol. I’m not saying I never drink alcohol, but if I were to have a drink every day, I would not feel good.
I’ve cut way back on salt, especially from convenience foods and restaurant foods. I haven’t had a can of soup in I don’t know how long, and I would never order soup at a restaurant now. I also don’t buy salad dressing anymore because of the sodium. When I do go out and have something salty, then everything else I eat that day will be very, very low in sodium.
I’ve been retired for 2 years, and that makes it so much easier to make pretty much everything from scratch.
Sleep and Exercise
Being retired has opened my eyes to another lifestyle change that’s helped me feel better and regain some energy: Less stress. I didn’t even realize it was affecting my sleep. Now I sleep so much better.
Exercise was truly hard for me early on, but I was determined to restore that part of my life. I started with whatever physical activity my body would allow: gentle yoga and some walking, mostly.
Over time I could start doing squats and ride my bike. Eventually I could run stairs for exercise.
Almost 3 years ago, I was strong enough to join a fitness bootcamp. I do get tired more quickly than I used to, but I notice it less when I work out early in the morning.
Slow and Steady Worked for Me
My commitment to heart health paid off. I don’t need a heart transplant anymore. I’m in the minority of people whose heart failure actually got better, thanks to doing all the things my doctor advised.
It can be hard to see only slow progress. It’s not like I got fit quickly; it took all these years to feel like an athlete again. I’m proof that taking it slow and steady can transform your health and quality of life with heart failure.