50 Weeks of Change–WEEK 3: From Heart Disease to Heart Health

February is American Heart Month, a great time to commit to a healthy lifestyle and make small changes that can lead to a lifetime of heart health. For Week Three of our “50 Weeks of Change” series, GMW‘s Kristin Johnson interviewed one Wilton resident who, after a heart disease diagnosis, made major changes in her life and committed to the journey of becoming heart healthy. 

Four years ago, at the age of 34, Selina Santos of Wilton finally learned what was causing her constant chest pain and shortness of breath. After suffering symptoms for more than a decade, she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and aortic insufficiency. This, despite her young age and the fact she wasn’t carrying excess weight. “No matter how old you are, as a woman you have to take care of your heart,” she says.

Santos had sought advice in the past for her chronically high blood pressure and trouble breathing, but doctors dismissed her problems given she was a young woman. She was told that her symptoms were likely the result of stress and that she shouldn’t work so hard. She believed them.

Years later, when Santos was working as an executive producer at NBC Universal in Stamford, it finally became too difficult to ignore that she could barely catch her breath when she ran and that the simple act of walking up the stairs would turn her face beet red. One day at work she literally fell to her knees because she couldn’t breathe. She acted quickly, got in a cab, and went to the Tully Health Center in Stamford. Santos’ blood pressure was 170/109; normal range is 120/80 or lower. She wasn’t in any pain and was eager to return to work. Wisely and appropriately, Santos was not released until her pressure was brought down.

“After that, I was put in the care of Dr. Evelyn Cusack, a marvelous cardiologist, who changed my life,” says Santos. Cusack ordered rounds and rounds of tests and she refused to dismiss anything simply because Santos didn’t fit the “profile” based on her age, gender, and weight. First, she found Santos had a faulty heart valve, but further testing revealed Santos also suffered from aortic insufficiency. Complications from aortic insufficiency can include heart failure.

Santos was prescribed two medications, told to watch her diet–including her salt intake–and perhaps most importantly, to start exercising regularly, if she wanted to avoid surgery.

Santos took her doctor’s advice to heart. “Dr. Cusack told me I could reverse this and I was all in.” She immediately signed up to take her first indoor cycling class at JoyRide. It wasn’t long before she made the leap from regular rider to instructor.

“I fell in love with the feeling that I got being at JoyRide,” says Santos. “JoyRide helped me breathe easier, it helped me heal my heart. And so, when JoyRide owner Rhodie Lorenz approached me about being an instructor, even though that wasn’t something that had crossed my mind, I decided to go for it. I realized, as an instructor, I could give someone else the opportunity to experience what I had, to make a significant lifestyle change.”

Santos’ lifestyle change has not only brought her pressure down and healed her broken heart, but it’s also shaped her life’s mission–to help others create a healthier lifestyle as well as educate women about heart disease.

To that end, Santos has organized multiple fundraising rides in support of the American Heart Association (AHA) and Change of Heart, which benefits AHA’s Go Red for Women Movement. In 2016 Santos was named an AHA “Faces of Heart Ambassador” and was one of five women featured in a “survivor video.” That video was shown at the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Luncheon and Health & Wellness Expothat same year.

This year, Santos will be donating all the money she makes as a JoyRide instructor during February to the AHA, and on Thursday, February 15, she will lead a class entitled Heart of Joy at JoyRide Cycling + Fitness Studio in Wilton, where every rider will have an opportunity to donate to AHA.

“AHA does so much in the way of education, raising awareness, and for me personally. I want to support them whenever there is an opportunity,” add Santos.

Santos continues to provide new opportunities for her riders to get heart healthy. She is thrilled to lead the new HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) Cycle30 class, also at the Wilton JoyRide studio every Friday at 11:00 a.m..

HIIT alternates short bursts of high resistance intervals at fixed times (30 seconds / 45 seconds / 1 minute) followed by lower resistance recovery. When you are on those intervals working at maximum effort, you are keeping your heart rate up and burning more fat. High intensity pushes your body toward its metabolic limits and the low intensity recovery allows your body to rest and reset for the next round.

She explains, “With these intervals, your heart will pump better, allowing your arteries to become more elastic and thus allowing blood and oxygen to flow easier, lowering blood pressure. And, the entire workout is done in 30 minutes, making it extremely efficient and effective. What’s not to love?”

Visit the JoyRide website to sign up for Selina’s HIIT Cycle30 class or join editor Heather Borden Herve for Selina’s fundraising “Heart of Joy” class as part of her “50 Weeks of Change.” And please consider donating to the American Heart Association.

Selina’s Go Red for Women Survivor video:

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