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In early 2017, Bob Harper had a heart attack at the gym in the middle of his workout. He was only 52 years old, and one of the biggest names in the fitness industry (you probably know him as one of the trainers on The Biggest Loser). His heart attack shocked many people, since he outwardly seemed like the picture of health.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S., and someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds. While we know that certain lifestyle factors (such as poor diet, smoking or inactivity) can make you more likely to have heart disease, genetics can also play a role. After his heart attack, Harper found out that he has a hereditary condition which increases the lipoprotein(a) in his blood. Lipoprotein(a) transports cholesterol in the blood and can contribute to plaque in arteries and blood clots and can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. He told Today, "I did not know this condition that I was predisposed to. I'd never heard about it."
For the last four years, Harper has been an advocate for heart attack survivors. He helped pioneer the Survivors Have Heart program, which engages heart attack survivors and their loved ones through patient stories to celebrate survivorship. He helps his fellow survivors find purpose and live their healthiest lives. This year, he took portraits of survivors from around the country to help change the perceptions and stigma around heart attacks. (The photos will be displayed in the Flatiron Plaza in New York City from October 22-23. You can view the portraits here). He says, "I wanted the photographs to be hopeful and happy and show people that you can survive and thrive [after a heart attack]."
And Harper seems to be doing just that. After his heart attack, he worked with his medical team to make lifestyle changes that have helped him get healthier. He says, "I've been in the health and fitness industry for almost 30 years now, but I had to pivot my life and redefine the way that I ate and worked out." For starters, he now eats a largely Mediterranean diet. He says, "I went from eating a more high-protein, high-fat diet to being more balanced. I don't eat very much red meat anymore. I live on mostly fish, sometimes chicken and lots of vegetables."
Even though Harper eats mostly whole foods, he says that his meals are far from bland. He says, "I like to eat clean, but it becomes a real experiment in the kitchen because I don't want to eat boring steamed chicken and broccoli. I'm never going to eat that … that's not sustainable." And even though he dials back on the fat and sodium for his heart health, he still adds plenty of flavor to his food. He says, "Herbs and spices are your friend. You don't have to rely on oil or fatty ingredients to make your food taste good."
Harper swears by his cast-iron skillet for quick, easy and healthy meals. He says, "I'm from Tennessee, and I grew up on a farm. Give me any type of vegetables and protein. I like to make stir-fries. Trying to make everything in one skillet is a fun challenge for me." (We think he'd be into our One-Pan Chicken and Asparagus Bake, Mushroom & Tofu Stir-Fry or Mexican Skillet Quinoa!)
He says, "Rachael Ray is a really good friend of mine, and she's made me really good at my knife skills. I used to think, 'I'll buy these precut vegetables,' and she said, 'You'll never do that again.'" Now, he says he can't live without a "sharp, sharp knife" (like this one from Shun; $199 at Williams Sonoma) for his veggie prep.
For fancier meals, Harper says, "I love my Le Creuset Dutch oven. I can make a killer roast chicken with Dijon mustard, onion, white wine and garlic" (Buy it: $370 for a 5½-quart Dutch oven; Le Creuset). Part of the Mediterranean-diet lifestyle is to eat without distractions and enjoy your meal with loved ones, and Harper tries to put this into practice each day. He says, "I like to have a nice glass of wine with my dinner, put a nice little table together and sit with [someone]. During the pandemic, I would have Zoom dinners with people." He adds that it's important "to enjoy your meal versus [thinking], 'I have to shovel this in because I have to get back to whatever.'"
Harper tries to practice this type of mindfulness each day. He says, "I'm in my 50s and I don't need to do the things I used to do when I was much younger. I find joy in simple pleasures more than ever … I do hot yoga. That's something that really helps me and my stress levels. I meditate. I have two dogs that keep me calm. I read a lot more now than I ever have. It's the little things in life."
Harper is also big on practicing gratitude, and says that he finds this is true for many other heart attack survivors. He adds that when you have a near-death experience, your perspective shifts and you realize what's truly important in life. He says, "Emotions run the gamut: fear, anger, etc. But we all kind of get to a place of gratitude and love."