Bob Harper, the fitness idol and “Biggest Loser” host, defied every limit of strength and endurance up until the moment he suffered a shocking heart attack last February.
Harper took to Instagram Friday with an intensely personal post that shows the full arc of his recovery one year later.
“I am sharing an extremely private photo with all of you today. This was me 1 year and 10 days ago, in a coma,” Harper captioned the photo of himself strapped to a hospital bed. The fitness star was put into a medically induced coma after his near-fatal attack.
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“TODAY I just did 18.1 (a CrossFit workout) … in the same room where I went into cardiac arrest,” he wrote. “To say I am grateful for my life is a MAJOR understatement. The whole time I did that workout I just kept saying to myself ‘I’m still here.’”
Since his near-death experience, Harper has learned much about himself, and the true nature of health and wellness.
When Bob Harper found out that after having a heart attack he was more likely to have another within a year, he took every step to prevent it from happening again.Jared Siskin / Getty Images file
The fitness trainer, now 52, switched his diet from one that was high in protein and fat to an altogether more balanced approach. He started practicing yoga and he stopped stressing about missing a gym day.
Most importantly, he learned he has a hereditary condition involving high levels of lipoprotein (a) in his blood, a particle that contributes to plaque in the arteries and blood clots, and can increase the risk of heart attacks.
Harper’s mother passed away several years ago from a heart attack.
“Make sure you really know your health from the inside out,” Harper told TODAY. “You owe it to yourself. You owe it to your friends and family and the people who love you.”Courtesy Bob Harper
The fitness coach encourages others to explore their family health history and take the initiative to learn possible risk factors. Harper now regularly visits his cardiologist and medicates to lower his risk of another attack.
Despite every lifestyle change, Harper now feels comfortably settled into a new normal.
“After surviving a heart attack, it doesn’t mean that you can’t go back to the way it used to be for you. I believe that you can get your strength again,” Harper told TODAY earlier this month. “You learn about your resilience. You learn that your heart can get strong again.”
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- Bob Harper to Megyn Kelly on his heart attack: ‘I died for 9 minutes’
- How Bob Harper’s Fitness Philosophy Has Changed Since His Heart Attack
- For Bob Harper from ‘The Biggest Loser’, Repeat Heart Attacks Are Simply Not an Option
- Masked warning signs
- Facing and embracing recovery
- Helping other heart attack survivors
- A renewed outlook
- Bob Harper on his heart attack: ‘I had what they call a widow-maker’
Bob Harper to Megyn Kelly on his heart attack: ‘I died for 9 minutes’
Oct. 5, 201704:58(Richie Knapp)
Bob Harper has been synonymous with being a tough guy since his early days of whipping people into shape on The Biggest Loser. But even the most physically fit people can fall victim to ailments. And Harper is living proof of that. In 2017, the celebrity trainer was caught completely off guard after suffering a near-fatal heart attack. Since then, he’s made changes to his diet and fitness routine. He’s also found a new workout that he admits has been particularly humbling to him but is something that he’s absolutely loving in this phase of his life. He’s learned to slow down and make time for himself, whether that’s curling up with a good book or going for a walk with his dogs, and is adamant about helping other survivors to know that they can absolutely go on to live healthy lives after experiencing what he went through.
In 2020, he’ll host The Biggest Loser, which is returning for its 18th season after a four-year hiatus—and no doubt his new lease on life will help inspire the contestants.
Parade caught up with Harper to discuss how his life has “completely changed” following his unexpected medical emergency, his current love affair with hot yoga, and how he has learned to slow down.
What have you learned in the aftermath of your heart attack?
It just over two years ago that I had my heart attack and went into cardiac arrest. I was at a gym in New York City and I woke up in the hospital two days later being told what had happened to me and I was in complete shock. And let me tell you, it changed my life forever. My life has changed completely in the way that I live, the way that I eat, the way that I work out. Also professionally, I become an advocate for fellow heart attack survivors. I’ve been touring the country getting together with other survivors with something that we call Survivors Have Heart. And I think the main thing is that we’ve showed survivors that you’re not alone. And this time in your life that can be very overwhelming and super emotional but we can all get through this together. I encourage your readers to go onto Survivors Have Heart for all the information that they would need as heart attack survivors. It’s a great resource.
Related: Celebrity Trainer Drew Logan on the Night That Changed His Life—and His Approach to Fitness
What is your diet like nowadays?
My diet is very balanced. I do still eat animal protein, not as much. I’m a lot more plant-based. My doctor is always, as anyone in the nutritional would, encouraging me to focus more on getting more and more vegetables. I don’t eat much red meat anymore. I also watch my fat intake. Yes there are good fats for you but I still need to be aware of the fact. What I try to tell people is if you’re a heart attack survivor or if you’re a person who is wanting to get on a really good, strong, healthy lifestyle, balance is the key. And it’s not avoiding one certain macronutrient. It’s about having a good variety of all three and it will show you that you can live a healthy life. You don’t have to get tempted by the foods that could tempt you. For instance, people who love eating bread, I tell them, find a way to put it into your diet so you don’t completely restrict yourself.
Did your doctors say that you had any risk factors?
For me, it was definitely a genetic issue that I was dealing with. It was something if I would’ve known before my heart attack, maybe I could have prevented it—but I can’t live my life thinking, shoulda, coulda, woulda. I didn’t know then, but I do know now.
Finding out my blood work and finding out what was going on with my body is something that I encourage everyone who’s reading this to do. Go to your doctor and make sure that your all your blood work is where it needs to be.
I tell people that you really need to know your health from the inside out. Because when I had my heart attack, one of the main things that so many people said to me, was “How did you, this person that the picture of health, have this heart attack?” And it’s all about having this relationship with your doctors so you know what’s going on with your health from the inside out. You can’t just think, “I am not someone that looks like they would have a heart attack.” In my opinion now with the information that I have, we are all at risk of having a heart attack. So the more you know your health, the better for yourself.
Related: 7 Heart Health Mistakes Even Smart People Make
You said you’ve made some changes in the workout department. Does that mean just not working out as hard?
My workouts aren’t as extreme as they used to be, but I still work out all the time. I work out five, six days a week. I just don’t need to push myself to these limits like I used to. It’s not as important to me as it used to be. I believe that you should focus on what motivates you. I think that’s the key. For the longest time it motivated me to go into a gym and just work to the extreme. Now what motivates me is completely different. I go on walks with my dog. I still go into the gym, I do hot yoga, which is super extreme. You find different ways at different points in your life to motivate yourself.
Is self-care more of a priority for you now post heart attack?
I really am a big believer in meditation and finding ways to relieve your stress. Stress is a cancer in the body. I’ve found that it’s important to find ways to tackle it, such as meditation. I do hot yoga where I go into a room and I’m just on my mat in this super hot environment for 90 minutes. And it’s a real internal thing for me. I talk to people all the time and say, “What do you do to quiet the voices in your head or to calm the stress of happening in your life? Because it’s a really important thing to do.”
I read a lot. Reading a book really relaxes me and calms me. I’m also a photographer. It’s a hobby that really interests me and I can go out on the street with my camera and I get a lot of enjoyment out of that. These are things that I do for myself.
What kind of books are you into reading?
For the past year and a half, I’ve gone back to reading the old classic books that I never read as a kid or I was too young to understand. Like for instance, I just got finished reading Lord of the Flies and that was a book that I had to read when I was a kid. And I don’t understand how a kid could get the depth of that book. That book is fantastic. And so that’s what I’ve been doing. And right now I’m reading Crime and Punishment, which is a real serious read!
So you’re basically giving yourself the homework again that all of our teachers growing up tried to give us.
Absolutely. And I’m enjoying this so much more in my adult life.
What does a typical week look like for you now, workout-wise? How often are you doing the yoga?
Well, my primary workout I do is hot yoga, which is Bikram style and it is very strenuous. It’s very rigid. I do that like five days a week and then I’m trying to incorporate one day of gym, CrossFit style workouts, things like that. But also, if it’s just a day that I take my two dogs out on the street and we go for a long walk and then sit at the park and I read my book, that’s a great day too.
It sounds like you probably weren’t doing as much yoga before. Have you noticed a lot of benefits from it?
I think that it’s a very humbling experience for me. I’ve always enjoyed being physical and now this physicality is coming in a completely different direction. And there are times I’m pretty flexible, but I look around the room and there are people completely schooling me. Again, I tell people, don’t ever compare yourself to other people because I’ll be in this room and I see these people that are just able to get into these positions. I’m like, “My body just doesn’t move in that direction!”
That must be interesting because you have probably humbled a lot of people with your own workout DVDs in the past.
Exactly. I’m getting a taste of my own medicine now! And those DVDs of mine from the past would kick my ass too. Trust me we’re all sweating doing those.
Find out why a yoga guru says there’s no shame in using yoga blocks.
How Bob Harper’s Fitness Philosophy Has Changed Since His Heart Attack
If you still exercise with the mentality that fitness needs to hurt to work, you’re doing it wrong. Sure, there are mental and physical benefits to pushing past your comfort zone and getting used to feeling uncomfortable. I mean, burpees? Not exactly a cozy nap on the couch. But the upsurge of tough AF workouts (à la CrossFit or HIIT) and programs (like Insanity and P90X) can make even the toughest, fittest, strongest badass out there wonder, “Am I doing enough?” “Should I be doing more?” “If I’m not sore the next day, did it even count?”
After his shocking heart attack back in 2017, Bob Harper, health and fitness legend and The Biggest Loser alum and soon-to-be reboot host (!), had to ask himself the same questions and totally reevaluate his entire fitness philosophy.
To recap: Harper suffered a “widowmaker” heart attack (and was, as he explains, essentially dead on the floor for nine minutes) at a gym in NYC back in February 2017. Luckily, thanks to doctors who just happened to be on-site, he received CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and an AED (automated external defibrillator) was used to shock his heart to get it to beat again. At the hospital, he was put into a medically induced coma and spent the next week under watchful eyes as he began to heal.
First, it’s worth noting that Harper says his doctors’ attribute his heart attack to a genetic predisposition to cardiac conditions. But, still, if someone that physically fit could experience that kind of life-changing setback, what does that mean for the athletes he trains and those of us who are just struggling through our next heavy-lifting Tabatas? Bob’s answer? Cut yourself some slack.
Harper says he’s more kind to himself now, but it wasn’t always this way, especially while recovering from his heart attack. When he returned home, the only activity he was cleared for was walking, but even that was difficult. “When you realize you can barely walk around a block when you’re used to doing crazy CrossFit workouts and pushing yourself on a practically daily basis…I was embarrassed because of this,” he says.
Harper admits he shied away from support from friends and family who wanted to give it. He recalls a conversation with a friend where he tells him ‘I feel like I’m not superman anymore’. “I felt like I was superman for a long time,” says Harper. “That was one of the hardest times in my life,” he says.
The recovery process was a physical and mental challenge, and one Harper had never faced before. “Working out was everything to me,” he explains.”It was who I am, or who I was, and that was my identity.” Then it was all taken away in a split second, he says. “Talk about self-reflection. I had to go through an identity crisis and figure out who I was because if I wasn’t the guy who was working out in the gym and doing all these things. then who was I?”
Luckily, Harper has come a long way since then, and now his fitness outlook has changed; it’s become more forgiving.
It’s no stretch to say his health scare changed not just his fitness mentality, but his view on self-care as a whole. One important thing Harper has always championed but is even more vocal about now: Listening to your body. “For years that has been a staple of what I’ve said to people; ‘listen to your body,'” he says. “If something doesn’t feel right, it’s your body trying to tell you that it’s not right.”
He knows this all too well now: Six weeks before his heart attack, he fainted in the gym. He battled dizzy spells, adapted his workouts to avoid nausea triggers, but still ignored signs that something was seriously wrong. “The Friday before , I had to leave a CrossFit workout because I was so dizzy, and I was so upset about it,” he says. “And I was on the street in New York on my hands and knees because I was having a such a dizzy spell.” Looking back, he says he should have listened to his body and told doctors, who initially wrote his symptoms off as vertigo, that something felt seriously wrong.
Use his lesson as motivation to reset your own goals because it’s a losing battle to try to do it all or be great at everything, says Harper. “It’s impossible and it starts to make you feel like shit,” he says candidly. It’s something he says he’s had to remind himself of regularly as he builds up the strength he lost during recovery. “You know, I’m getting it back, and that has to be okay because if it’s not, what’s the alternative? Just feeling so bad about myself? says Harper. “That’s not worth it anymore.”
Another game-changer for the all-star trainer post-heart attack was his impulse to slow down—his workouts, his go-go-go business mindset, and even his training sessions with clients and friends. The goal? To be more present or “be here now,” as one of his favorite bracelets says. “I was always so focused on what’s next,” he admits. “That was always a big driving force for me: ‘What’s the next book?’ ‘What’s the next show? It’s got to be big.’ But I realized now more than ever that you have to appreciate wherever it is that you are because life can change on a dime.”
So if you’re feeling burned out or you just aren’t having fun with fitness anymore, Harper suggests taking your workout back to the basics. “I’m rediscovering working out, and it’s been really fun,” he says. While he still practices CrossFit, you can find him mixing it up with SoulCycle and hot yoga. “I hated yoga,” he admits. “But I hated it for competitive reasons. I’d be in there and I would just be like look at ‘Miss Cirque du Soleil’ over here, and I couldn’t do half of it. But now? I don’t really care.”
This second chance at life has given Harper yet another platform to change people’s lives. This time he’s focusing on other heart attack survivors like himself. Through a partnership with Survivors Have Heart, a movement created by AstraZeneca that focuses on after-attack care for survivors who are going through much of what Harper talks about himself: feelings of vulnerability, confusion, fear, and just feeling not like themselves.
For the second year in a row, Harper is joining forces with Survivors Have Heart visiting cities for multi-day events that bring survivors, caretakers, and community members together. They aim to provide the opportunity for greater awareness of and interest in heart disease and post-heart attack recovery to, in turn, help patients and loved ones cope with their new lives.
- By Alyssa Sparacino @a_sparacino
You’ve seen the Biggest Loser, so you know Bob Harper gets some major results—probably why “Bob Harper workout” is such a popular search term on Google. SELF got a chance to chat with Bob Harper to learn more about his #UpNOut morning routine, including his two favorite turbo moves, as well as the ultimate Bob Harper workout tips for when you’re running late and only have 10 minutes to get your sweat on. Read, sweat, then repeat.
SELF: What’s your favorite time of day to work out?
Bob Harper: Mornings, definitely. If my work day starts at 7 A.M., I’d rather get up early and exercise at 5 A.M. than going at 5 P.M. If I wait until the end of the day, I’ll find an excuse to skip it. My go-to workout is CrossFit.
Do you eat anything beforehand?
No food. I’m Paleo, and I find that a bulletproof coffee gets me going.
What about afterward?
I like to eat dinner leftovers for breakfast or lunch, right after my workout. I’m really into savory foods; I don’t like sweet stuff. I love the prepared frozen veggies from Trader Joe’s—I’ll cook them in a skillet with chicken or skirt steak and lots of spices. Or I might make a “sloppy joe” with grass-fed beef and an egg on top.
What else gets you #UpNOut?
I’m a numbers guy, and I am loving my Apple Watch Sport for tracking my activity. I have it in space gray. There is nothing like seeing my heart rate flashing in real time to push me to work even harder. Plus, I find that the “Time To Stand!” reminders every hour keep me moving. It’s motivating to see how much extra activity I can rack up throughout the day.
Do you use any other apps on your Apple Watch?
I like all of the apps, but I don’t want my brain to have too many things to think about when I’m exercising. So, I stick to one—the Workout app—to keep it as simple as possible. I select “Other Workout” before CrossFit. If I forget to track a session, it’s like, “Did that workout really happen?”
What’s your best tip for never skipping a morning workout?
Eat something healthy for dinner tonight and you’ll be less likely to press the snooze button tomorrow morning. If you don’t have the right fuel in your body, you’re not going to feel good and you’re not going to want to work out tomorrow morning. So many of us deprive ourselves all day and then eat a huge meal at night. But if you go to bed with a huge, sugary meal in you instead of fueling yourself all day long, you’re going to feel hungover and lethargic tomorrow. When I talk to people about making exercise stick, I talk to them about what they eat. If you’re aware of what you’re eating, you’ll be more inclined to get up and get moving.
I’m running late, and I’ve only got 10 minutes for a turbo workout at home. What should I do?
Here’s a calorie-burning, full-body conditioning EMOM workout you can do at home without any equipment:
Every even minute , do push-ups for 30 seconds. Then rest for 30 seconds.
Every odd minute , do squat jumps—getting as much air as you can—for 30 seconds. Then rest for 30 seconds.
That’s 10 very hard minutes of exercise for you to start your day with.
Here’s a pin to save for easy reference:
Graphic by Jocelyn Runice
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Photo Credit: CBS Photo Archive / Contributor, Getty; Supplied
For Bob Harper from ‘The Biggest Loser’, Repeat Heart Attacks Are Simply Not an Option
Last February, “The Biggest Loser” host Bob Harper set out to his New York gym for a routine Sunday morning workout. It seemed like just another day in the fitness expert’s life.
But midway through the workout, Harper suddenly found himself needing to stop. He laid down and rolled on to his back.
“I went into full cardiac arrest. I had a heart attack.”
While Harper doesn’t recall very much from that day, he was told that a doctor who happened to be in the gym was able to act quickly and perform CPR on him. The gym was equipped with an automated external defibrillator (AED), so the doctor used that to shock Harper’s heart back into a regular beat until an ambulance arrived.
The chances of him surviving? A slim six percent.
He woke up two days later to the shocking news that he had nearly died. He credits his friend who had been working out with him, along with the gym coach, and doctor, for his survival.
Masked warning signs
Leading up to his heart attack, Harper says he hadn’t experienced any of the common warning signs, such as chest pain, numbness, or headaches, though he did feel dizzy at times. “About six weeks prior to my heart attack, I actually fainted in the gym. So there were definitely signs that something was wrong, but I chose not to listen,” he says.
Warren Wexelman, a cardiologist with the NYU Langone School of Medicine and Medical Center, says Harper probably missed other warning signs because of his peak physical condition. “The fact that Bob was in such amazing physical condition before his heart attack was probably the reason he didn’t sense all the chest pain and shortness of breath that someone in not as great physical condition would have felt.”
“Honestly, if Bob wasn’t in the condition that Bob was in, he probably never would have survived.”
So how did a 51-year-old man in such great condition have a heart attack in the first place?
A blocked artery, Wexelman explains, as well as the discovery that Harper carries a protein called lipoprotein(a), or Lp(a). This protein increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and valve blockages. Harper most likely inherited it from his mother and maternal grandfather, who both died from heart attacks at 70 years old.
But while carrying Lp(a) certainly increases one’s risk, many other factors go into increasing one’s risk for a heart attack. “There’s never just one risk factor for heart disease, it’s multiple things,” says Wexelman. “Family history, genetics you inherit, diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure all come together to make the picture of what we call heart disease, and makes the person — no matter if they are in the best shape, or worst shape — much more prone to having one of these events.”
Facing and embracing recovery
Harper has made it his mission to address every underlying issue — from diet to routine.
Rather than approach each lifestyle change as a violation of his already healthful approach to fitness and wellness, he’s choosing to embrace the changes he has to make in order to ensure a positive — and lasting — recovery.
“Why have guilt or shame about something that’s completely out of your control like genetics?” asks Harper. “These are the cards that are dealt and you do the best you can to manage any condition that you have.”
As well as attending cardiac rehab and slowly easing back into exercise, he’s had to radically overhaul his diet. Before the heart attack, Harper was on a Paleo diet, which involves eating mostly high-protein, high-fat foods.
“What I realized after my heart attack was that my diet was lacking balance and that’s why I came up with ‘The Super Carb Diet’ book,” he recalls. “It’s about being able to press the reset button and getting all the macronutrients back onto your plate — protein, fat, and carbs.”
Helping other heart attack survivors
Though Harper tackled recovery — and the requisite changes to his lifestyle — with gusto, he admits that he was startled when he learned that having one heart attack puts you at increased risk for a repeat heart attack.
Indeed, according to the American Heart Association, 20 percent of heart attack survivors over age 45 experience a repeat heart attack within five years. And of the 790,000 heart attacks experienced in the United States each year, 210,000 of those are repeat heart attacks.
Learning this reality only further emboldened Harper to take control of his body. “It was in that moment that I realized I was going to do everything and anything that my doctors told me,” he says.
One of those doctor’s suggestions was taking the medication Brilinta. Wexelman says the drug stops the arteries from reclogging and reduces chances of future heart attacks.
“We know that Brilinta is not a drug that anybody can take because it can cause bleeding,” says Wexelman. “The reason that Bob is a good candidate for this drug is because he’s such a good patient and people on these drugs really need to listen to their doctor who’s caring for them.”
While taking Brilinta, Harper decided to team up with the drug’s manufacturer, AstraZeneca, to help launch an education and support campaign for heart attack survivors called Survivors Have Heart. The campaign is an essay competition that will see five heart attack survivors from all over the country attend an event in New York City at the end of February to raise awareness for the warning signs of repeat heart attacks.
“I’ve met so many people since doing this and they all have a special and important story to tell. It’s great to give them an outlet to tell their story,” he says.
As part of the campaign, Harper coined six survivor basics to help other people who have experienced a heart attack face their fears and be proactive with their self-care — by focusing on mindfulness, as well as physical health and treatment.
“This is so personal and so real and organic to me, because I’m contacted by a lot of people who want tips on what to do after suffering a heart attack,” he says. “Survivors Have Heart gives people a place and community to turn to for tips.”
A renewed outlook
As far as where his story will go from here, Harper says he has no current plans to return to “The Biggest Loser” after 17 seasons. For now, helping others manage their heart health and avoid repeat heart attacks takes priority.
“I feel like my life is taking a turn,” he says. “For now, with Survivors Have Heart, I have a whole other set of eyes that are on me looking for guidance and help, and that’s exactly what I want to be able to do.”
He also plans to advocate the importance of learning CPR and having AEDs available in public places where people congregate. “These things helped save my life — I want the same for others.”
“I went through a major identity crisis this past year of having to discover new outlets in my life, and redefine who I thought I was for these past 51 years. It’s been emotional, difficult, and challenging — but I’m seeing light at the end of the tunnel and feeling better than I have.”
A heart attack can happen to anyone.
If you’re thinking, “I exercise, eat well, maintain a healthy weight … I’m definitely not at risk,” then you’d be on the same page as celebrity personal trainer Bob Harper, before he suffered a heart attack last year at 52 years old.
NBC News BETTER caught up with Harper as he shared his story to promote a project with AstraZeneca called Survivors Have Heart, an essay contest where heart attack survivors can share personal stories of their journey.
“On February 12 of last year I was in the gym, the next thing I knew I woke up in a hospital two days later being told that I had a heart attack and that I immediately went into cardiac arrest. Talk about a life-changing experience,” says Harper.
Harper’s not alone. According to the CDC, 735,000 Americans have a heart attack each year and of these, 525,000 are a first-time heart attacks.
And believing that you are aren’t at risk is the number one biggest misconception, says Dr. Warren Wexelman, a cardiologist with NYU Langone School of Medicine and Medical Center and President of the American Heart Association in Brooklyn. “It’s not the question of who is at risk, but who isn’t? The answer is everybody is at risk,” he says. “There is no one who is immune from heart disease. Heart disease is one of the most equal opportunity killers there is. It is the largest killer of human beings in the United States.”
A 2005 survey found that only 27 percent of respondents were aware of all the major symptoms of a heart attack and knew to call 911 when someone was having a heart attack.
“The reason why so many heart attacks are still fatal before a patient ever gets to the hospital is because they want to deny the symptoms. They don’t want to give in to the fact that they may be sick and they put their lives in danger for it,” says Dr. Wexelman.
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The most common symptoms of heart disease are chest heaviness and tightness that gets worse when you exert yourself, shortness of breath (sometimes that’s the only symptom), palpitations and some people get very sweaty along with the chest pain, which is a major red flag, says Wexelman. But, he adds, “heart diseases are interesting, it’s different in everybody, no blockage is the same, nobody experiences it the same, so when people complain of any discomfort in the chest, back, neck or arm, especially when it comes on with exertion, it needs to be evaluated right away.”
For Harper, dizziness was the main symptom that presented itself. “Bob had dizziness for several episodes that got him down on to the floor, and that’s a very bad sign of the disease that he had,” says Wexelman. “And that’s what nearly killed him: he got dizzy while he was exercising at the gym, he dropped to the floor and two days later he woke up. The only reason he was really able to wake up was because of his amazing physical condition. The average individual would’ve never gotten through that.”
Being a Woman is Major Risk Factor
For many years, heart disease was seen as a man’s problem. Women got a free pass, says Wexelman, but the tides have changed. Today, 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for heart disease or stroke, and fewer women than men survive their first heart attack, according to the American Heart Association.
“It’s interesting because in my work with the American Heart Association, you can’t get people emotional about heart disease. If you talk to women about breast cancer, it’s an emotional thing. You can cut the emotion with a knife. When you talk about heart disease it’s ‘Oh, you know, my uncle had a heart attack, my neighbor had a heart attack, they are back to work, they’re fine, it’s all good.’ There’s no emotion. But the reality here is that 1 out of every 8 women could perhaps get breast cancer, 1 out of every 3 women will die of a heart attack or stroke in the US. That is huge.”
1 out of every 8 women will get breast cancer; 1 out of every 3 women will die of a heart attack or stroke in the US.
What has prompted this change? “Women are running the world. They are running for president, they are running corporations, they are out in the workplace and doing what they used to do before, taking care of families and keeping up their home,” says Wexelman. “Stress levels are high, their diets aren’t so great, and men and women are dying of heart diseases now equally, whereas before it was anywhere from 4 to 6 times the amount of men than women. Being a female now is an actual risk factor for strokes in people with . We need to develop the emotion: Heart disease is still the number one killer of human beings in the United States and that’s just a damn shame because there’s so much we can do about it.”
Heart attack prevention tips
The statistics are scary, but there are also some promising stats that show taking actionable steps to keep your ticker healthy — and nip problems in the bud if they arise — does make a difference. In fact, 80 percent of heart disease and stroke events may be prevented by lifestyle changes and education.
- Listen to your body. “My symptoms were different than the traditional chest pain, numbing in the arm, the headaches … I didn’t experience any of those. But what I did experience were dizzy spells. Six weeks prior to my heart attack I was in Los Angeles in the gym and I fainted and that was the start of this whole roller coaster ride. I wasn’t listening to my body like I always tell every person I’ve ever worked with that they needed to do. Dr. Wexelman said something that I found really profound but so simple: ‘If something is going on, it’s not going to go away you need to get it checked out.'” The reason why so many people end up in more trouble than they should be and with more damage, is because they have symptoms for a long time and ignore them, says Wexelman. “There are many diverse symptoms; if you’re not feeling right, that’s the time to go to the doctor,” he says.
- Know your family history. “The most important way to deal with that risk is by going to the doctor, getting checked, making sure that your family history is known,” says Dr. Wexelman. “Bob had a family history of his mother dying from a heart attack at 70, his grandfather dying of it, and his cholesterol was quite high despite all the exercise.”
- Get a good yearly history and physical examination. “The most important thing is to first get to the doctor, establish the relationship, get a full history physical and blood work, and then determine what your real risk of heart disease is,” says Wexelman.
- Ask the right questions. “There are three important questions to ask when you go to the doctor that usually determine what the doctor and you will do as partners. And these three questions are just never asked,” says Wexelman. “They are: What’s wrong with me and why am I feeling this way? What do we do about it? And what does this mean to me in the long run? So if patients are feeling chest pain or shortness of breath or even fatigue – you can’t ignore it, and you have to ask the doctor to pursue it.”
- Get a fitness Rx. “Doctors tell patients to go get exercise, but they don’t tell them how much, what’s right for them, etc.” says Wexelman. “Everyone has an exercise prescription and it’s just like a medication prescription: how often, for how long, what type of exercise and how to get your training heart rate up appropriately.”
Survivor basics: moving forward after a heart attack
Suffering a heart attack is a significant event – one that inevitably changes your outlook on life and your daily routine.
“I was told information incrementally. So I wasn’t told that I actually on my file a ’cause of death.’ When I found that out, it was a lot of information to take in,” says Harper. “I’ve always been a person that was so driven and type A and I have my routine, which I love, and when all of that was taken away from me and my whole identity of fitness was taken away, I went through an identity crisis. I didn’t know who I was and it became a journey for me. I was going through this new life of mine and having to rediscover different sides of me. It was really hard. It was really emotional; I went through a lot of depression because of it.”
In February, “The Biggest Loser” trainer Bob Harper, 52, suffered a near-fatal heart attack. He spoke with TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie two months later about the experience, recalling, “My heart stopped. Not to be dramatic, but I was dead. I was on that ground dead.”
After the heart attack, Harper rehabbed and adopted a new fitness routine and diet. The heart attack changed his life in other ways as well. He reflects on those changes below for our 2017 Voices series, a collection of essays and interviews with the people behind some of the year’s biggest news stories.
Courtesy Bob Harper
Feb. 12, 2017, is a day that I have no recollection of at all, but it is a day that changed my life forever.
My name is Bob Harper. I have been a personal trainer and host of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” for 17 seasons. I am a New York Times bestselling author. And I’ve now been initiated into a club: The Heart Attack Survivors Club.
On Feb. 12, I was in a gym working out — like any other day — when I dropped dead on the gym floor.
ME! The health and fitness guy. The guy whose entire career is based on getting people on the right track for health and wellness.
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I woke up two days later in a hospital surrounded by friends and family. They began filling in the missing pieces of what happened, and it was the biggest shock of my life.
Courtesy Bob Harper
Throughout this past year the two main questions I’ve been asked are how my life has changed since my heart attack and cardiac arrest and what my perspective is now that I am a survivor and have been given a second chance.
My life is completely different now. I have always been what some would categorize as a Type A person. I have been driven and I have been focused. I knew that I would be working out almost every single day. I knew that my diet would be on point. I knew that I would be burning the candle at both ends. I have always loved structure and discipline.
Courtesy Bob Harper
Well, let me tell you, it’s all different now. My life is about appreciation and gratitude. It is about balance. And just like I said to Savannah Guthrie on TODAY last April, it’s about not sweating the big things and definitely not sweating the small things. I know how short life can be. I know that it could all be taken away in the blink of an eye.
Now when something triggers me I try to say to myself, “WHO CARES!!” It just doesn’t matter. I know that I’m not perfect and I know that life is a process. I just take it one day at a time. And that feels good to me.
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Bob Harper on his heart attack: ‘I had what they call a widow-maker’
April 4, 201705:31
My whole life has been devoted to helping people, and since my heart attack I have a whole new set of eyes on me and I want to do what I can to help. I am more passionate than ever to get the message out there about the importance of being CPR certified and knowing how to use an AED. Those two things, along with the quick thinking of the people around me on Feb. 12, are the reasons why I am able to write this to you now. If not for them, I would not be here. They are my angels.
I am thankful every day for the people that I surround myself with. I am thankful for my two dogs that I love with all of my heart.
Courtesy Bob Harper
What I am most thankful for is the relationship that I have built with my heart. This is gonna sound a little kooky, but bear with me for a second.
After my heart attack I battled with this thought that my heart gave out on me. The one thing in my life that has always been there — through every love, every heartbreak, every brutal workout, every smile and every single tear — decided on Feb. 12 to stop on me.
This has been a really emotional journey because I stopped trusting my heart. I was afraid to work out. I walked the streets every day thinking to myself, “Am I gonna have another heart attack??” I was afraid to be alone, because if I had been alone when I had my heart attack I would have stayed dead.
It’s been 10 months since my heart attack and I am happy to say that my heart and I are building a very strong connection with one another. I don’t take my heart for granted.
At the end of my yoga classes, as I’m laying on my back, I put my hand on my heart and I feel the strong beats and I just smile. I love my heart.
Harper has teamed up with “Survivors Have Heart,” which includes traveling the country to speak with fellow heart attack survivors. (Getty Images)
In 2017, Bob Harper broke one of his cardinal rules.
The fitness guru who coached contestants on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser” through weight loss, while millions tuned in week after week to see the results, had failed to listen to his own body.
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“About six weeks prior to my heart attack I was at the gym and I fainted,” Harper, now 53, told Fox News. “That was very unusual – nothing like that had happened before but I made excuses. ‘Oh, I was dehydrated,’ or ‘I ate too much or not enough’ – all the excuses you can think of.”
But then Harper developed dizzy spells, which progressed to the point of a friend insisting he see a heart doctor before sending him home from the gym. Harper said he agreed on a Friday to see the doctor on a Monday, but on Feb. 12, the day before he was scheduled to go, he had a heart attack referred to as a “widowmaker.”
According to the Cleveland Clinic, the widowmaker heart attack occurs when the left anterior descending artery, which supplies blood to the larger front part of the heart, is blocked at its origin. From the outside, a patient experiencing a widowmaker will exhibit the same symptoms as a heart attack, but due to the delicate location of the clot, major damage occurs at a quicker rate.
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Harper was unconscious for two days and in the hospital for more than a week. He found out afterward that he had a genetic cholesterol issue that put him at risk of a heart attack, which is why knowing your health history is a pillar of his latest healthy living campaign, “Survivors Have Heart.”
“You have to know your history, and you have to know what’s going on with you,” he said. “From the outside, I’m the picture of health. I’m the health and fitness guy doing everything right – it wasn’t until after the fact that I found out that I had this genetic issue.”
Harper modified his diet under his doctor’s direction and made the change from high-protein, high-fat to a more balanced variety. He said he favors more low-fat options now and reduced his red meat intake to about once a month, instead consuming more fish, chicken and eggs.
In the age of social media influences and brand marketing, Harper said a goal of his campaign is to provide easy-to-follow guidelines for his followers so that they don’t turn to misinformation or fall for products offering false promises.
“All the tricks that are out there, they are tricks that people cannot sustain,” he said. “There’s so much white noise where there’s just a lot of misinformation and information that gets wrapped around a product that is trying to be sold. We all know what to do; you eat clean, you try to stay away from fast foods and processed foods and you go toward more wholesome-type foods.”
And while his former co-host Jillian Michaels has been vocal about her opposition to the popular Keto diet, Harper didn’t rule it out, instead, he focuses on the approach that no one diet fits all.
“If your doctor says it’s OK with you — then I’m fine with it,” he said. “If Keto is something that you can sustain and you are losing weight and your blood results are showing that your cholesterol is in a safe zone and triglycerides are good, then great. You’ve got to find a diet that really works for you.”
In addition to diet changes, Harper said he learned to let go of things out of his control and stress less.
“You get wrapped up in the news, you get wrapped up in the things in your life that you know what, it’s beyond your control, who cares,” he said. “Being able to say that to yourself — who cares, stop for a minute, breathe for a minute, manage that stress and don’t sweat the big things and don’t stress the small things. You don’t stress the things that are beyond your control.”
Part of Harper’s campaign includes traveling the country speaking to other heart attack survivors and giving them the opportunity to tell their story, which he said has been some of the proudest moments of his career.
“The whole campaign has been so personal to me,” he said.
Almost a year ago, Bob Harper was at the gym when he suddenly collapsed on the gym floor in the middle of his workout. When he woke up in the hospital two days later, the beloved Biggest Loser trainer was shocked to learn that he’d experienced a severe heart attack.
The heart attack prompted Harper to switch up his workouts, adopt the Mediterranean diet, and start taking Brilinta, a medication that lowers his chances of having another heart attack. He’s also partnered with AstraZeneca on a “Survivors Have Heart” campaign and published a new book, The Super Carb Diet.
“Everything about my life is just different now,” Harper says, reflecting on the year since the near-fatal incident.
“I’m more relaxed. I’m a lot easier to be around, I hope,” he continues. “I’ve always been a very type A person — I’ve been very driven; I’ve been very focused and regimented with my workouts and diet — and now I’ve let loose the reins. I don’t feel like I need to be in control as much as I thought I needed to in the past.”
In a phone call with Men’s Health, Harper opened up about his new life as a heart attack survivor. Dr. Warren Wexelman, a cardiologist on the faculty of the NYU Langone School of Medicine and Medical Center and the President of the American Heart Association in Brooklyn, was also on the line to provide some heart-healthy tips for guys. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.
Michael Prince Photography
Men’s Health: Bob, you said one of the hardest things about recovering from your heart attack was learning to trust your heart again. What did that mean for you?
Bob Harper: If you think about it, your heart’s been beating in your chest ever since you were a little bitty baby — that’s the one constant in your life — and all of a sudden on February 12 of last year, mine stopped. That relationship that I’m building with my heart comes into play when I go to the gym now — especially in the beginning when I started working out again, thinking, ‘Am I going to have another heart attack? Is this going to happen to me again?’ And you just have to just build that relationship again. It’s like with any other relationship — it takes nurturing and time and patience.
Where are you with your heart now? What’s that relationship like today?
My relationship with my heart has gotten a lot better. I recently was in the gym, and I normally have my heart rate monitor, and I’ll always be very aware of where my heart rate is, and I didn’t even check my heart rate. I never even really talked to anybody out it and I just kind of thought to myself, ‘Well, look at me, I’m just trusting my heart again. I didn’t even need to look at my monitor.”
What do your workouts look like these days?
They’re different than they used to be, as far as intensity. I’ve been doing CrossFit for a long time, and I still love CrossFit, I still want to do CrossFit, but I don’t do it at the intensity that I used to do it. I don’t do that high-intensity, shorter time domain anaerobic activity as much as I’ve been doing aerobic mid-level longer time domain — just building the strength in my heart again.
Michael Prince Photography
Dr. Wexelman, why is that better in terms of heart health?
Dr. Warren Wexelman: The best exercise to do for your heart is cardio-based, working your large muscle groups to get your heart and lungs working efficiently together so they don’t have to work as hard. That’s the real way to train your heart and keep your body in great shape. Some people go out and do tremendous amounts of weightlifting or high-intensity exercise that really doesn’t pay off for them. It may look great, and they may certainly be able to have physical strength, but to keep your heart and lungs healthy, aerobic cardio-type exercise is really the way to go.
One of the things about Bob’s story that’s so compelling is if he wasn’t the man that he was prior to his heart attack and been in that great physical condition, he would have never survived what happened. It was a devastating blow — his heartbeat became very erratic in what we call sudden cardiac death — and most people never survive it. The key to his survival … was he was in such good shape, and what he’s done with his background of activity. So the recommendation from cardiologists like myself is 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise 4 to 6 days a week, if you can do it.
When it comes to heart health, what’s the number one mistake you see guys making at the gym?
BH: I guess I just want to tell people to never underestimate the benefits of aerobic activity. I think I’ve gone into such a world where everything needs to be done so quickly, and everything’s gotta be working at the highest level, and it’s gotta be the hardest workout ever, no pain no gain. You know what? Maybe you don’t need so much pain, and you can still get some gain.
WW: I think men have a tendency to do a lot more weight training. What that does to you — when you lift heavy weight your blood pressure goes up quickly, and when you put it down it goes down very fast. That is not good for you.
BH: I love Olympic lifting. Olympic lifting is something I’ve been doing for a long time, and that is just short bursts, large muscle groups. I still like doing that — I just don’t do it with the heavy weight that I used to do, and I’m definitely incorporating more of that aerobic training.
Michael Prince Photography
Bob, as a trainer, what do you say to guys who hate cardio? (We know you’re out there, cardio haters.)
I think they probably haven’t found the right cardio exercises to do. I would recommend they try boxing — boxing would be a good cardio-type activity that still wouldn’t be that mundane. I can’t imagine — I’m in New York and I drive past these gyms and I see people on the elliptical? Like, how are they doing that?
Related: Need some inspiration? Here’s a cardio workout for people who hate cardio.
What does the future look like for you?
What’s next for me is getting the message out about heart health. It’s an important part of my brand now, to be able to help a whole different group of people, the heart attack survivors.
We need to know: Is there any more reality TV in your future?
That’s an interesting question. There are some things that I’m working on, so when it finally happens, you’ll be the first to know.
Jordyn Taylor Jordyn Taylor is the Deputy Editor of Content at Men’s Health.