Seeing Red: Advocating For Women’s Heart Health

heart in hand

As we are all aware, healthy lives do not begin and end with fitness alone. Lifestyle, dietary habits, genetics and stressful work environments also figure into the equation. Our clients look to us for guidance, not only in the gym but also in these other aspects of daily life. Many avid exercisers are no doubt trying to promote well-being along with strength and endurance, which is a fabulous goal. However, we would be doing our female clients a disservice if we recognize but fail to address risk factors for potential life-threatening situations.

Gender Differences

We’ve all seen the way cardiac arrest is portrayed in the movies: a man gasps, clutches his chest and staggers to the ground. In reality, a heart attack victim could just as easily be a woman, in which case such a scene may not be quite as dramatic. According to Dr. Nieca Goldberg, Medical Director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center and an American Heart Association volunteer, “Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure.” Instead, they may experience shortness of breath, pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, upper back pressure or extreme fatigue.”

It’s In The Science

Just as a cardiac event will present differently in men and women, heart disease affects the genders differently. Biology is the significant issue at play here. The hormonal differences between men and women contribute to the manner in which heart disease develops and progresses. Studies have shown that post- menopausal women are at an even greater risk for heart disease, since circulating levels of estrogen seem to promote better cholesterol profiles.

Even though both women and men succumb to heart attacks caused by blockages in the main arteries leading to the heart, the method in which the clots develop often differs.

Women tend to develop plaque erosion, in which smaller pieces of plaque break off, become exposed and cause the formation of smaller blood clots. These clots may or may not cause total occlusions all at once, which helps to explain a female’s cardiac event having a more subtle presentation.

Risk factors also differ by gender. High blood pressure is more strongly associated with heart attacks in women than in men. For young women with diabetes, the risk for heart disease is four to five times higher than for a man of the same age. Race, too, is an issue. Compared to Caucasians, women of color have a higher incidence of heart attacks across all age categories; young black women have greater odds of dying even before being discharged from the hospital.

“Can This Really Happen To Me?”

Even when the signs are subtle, the consequences can be deadly, especially if the victim doesn’t get help right away. Women often chalk up such symptoms to less life-threatening conditions like acid reflux, the flu or part of the normal aging process.

They react this way mostly out of fear, or because women are accustomed to always prioritizing their families over themselves. Often there is an accompanying sense of denial; many women would not even consider a heart attack as a possibility.


Raising The Red Flag Of Awareness

The Annual Wear Red Day is a nationwide public awareness event, held each year on the first Friday in February. The goal of the day is to urge females from all walks of life to “go red” in an effort to draw attention to the leading killers of women – heart disease and stroke. National Wear Red Day promotes the Red Dress symbol, the icon of women’s heart health, and provides an opportunity for the public to unite in life-saving awareness-to-action plans.

Today, 1 in 3 women, or nearly 44 million American females, are affected by heart disease. Despite its prevalence, only 1 in 5 women are aware that heart disease poses their greatest health risk. While we have made great strides in reducing cardiovascular death rates in women over the past 2 decades, the need to continue education and advocacy is real. Such work begins with recognizing and accepting the fact that heart disease kills more women than all types of cancers combined. While most women fear succumbing to breast or uterine cancer, the harsh reality is that a female’s greatest health risk stems from heart disease and stroke.

preparing food

Hit The Gym…And The Kitchen

One of the first small but effective changes women can make in their lives revolves around prudent food choices. The question that most often creeps into a female’s mind is: Can nutritious become delicious? It certainly can be accomplished, and relatively easily. As it turns out, food does not have to lose flavor in order to benefit heart health. Preparing foods in such a manner simply translates to creating dishes that are low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and moderate in total fat. As an added bonus, these dishes have fewer calories than their higher-fat counterparts. Educating our clients about the importance of fresh produce, whole grains, fiber, and lowering sodium can become as vital to their health as learning their way around the weight room.

How To Get Involved

This February, consider planning an event for National Wear Red Day within your local community or at your fitness center. Organize informal lectures delivered by cardiac professionals (wearing red, ideally!) where participants can learn and also share heart-healthy advice. If you are a Certified Health Coach in addition to a Personal Trainer, you may wish to distribute flyers addressing healthy nutrition, the importance of stress reduction, and maintaining physical activity as a lifestyle goal. Remind attendees to start small: making even simple changes will help to reduce their risk for heart disease.

Take a stand and wear something red on February 3rd, 2017 … a red dress, tie, jacket, scarf or shirt. If you will be in the gym that day, perhaps choose red workout attire, footwear, or even a baseball cap. It is an easy way to show your commitment to educating female clients, helping them navigate a path to reducing risk, improving health, and potentially living longer and fuller lives.


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Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at [email protected]. She welcomes your feedback and your comments!