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From stressed out to all in with heart-healthy lifestyle changes

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Heart problems are nothing new for Joyce, having a father and grandparents with major heart issues. She herself has lived with occasional pain in her chest and an irregular heartbeat since her pregnancy decades ago.
 
Failed attempts at medications to control high blood pressure and heart arrhythmias, and ongoing visits with her cardiologists had become a part of life for Joyce, a retired educator. She had switched to a vegan diet years ago and tried to get a walk in when she could. But the ups and downs of everyday life sometimes got in the way of best intentions.
 
Joyce was doing OK, but she wasn’t thriving. In her mid-60s, she lacked energy, had trouble sleeping and worried about her family heart history.
 
A new cardiologist Joyce found after a move to Iowa had concerns and wanted to do a full series of tests to better understand the condition of Joyce’s heart. Joyce felt there had to be a different path for her – one that would help give her skills to improve her heart health naturally and would give her more peace of mind about her long-term health and overall well-being.

A journey to regain health through intensive cardiac rehabilitation

A family history of heart disease and ovarian cancer had led Joyce to read up on how to restore health through changes in diet and exercise. That’s how she learned about Ornish Lifestyle Medicine, an immersive rehabilitation program for people with severe heart disease.
 
“I had heard about Ornish for years,” Joyce said. “Then I found out that it’s covered by Medicare.”
 
Joyce searched for an Ornish program near home, but found none in Iowa. The closest option was Goshen Heart & Vascular Center, nearly 400 miles away.
 
Goshen is the only healthcare facility in Indiana – and one of only two facilities in the Midwest – to offer in-person Ornish Lifestyle Medicine classes. Heart disease experts from Goshen Cardiac Rehabilitation Services guide class participants through the nine-week outpatient program.

Changing habits to eat well, stress less, move more, connect better

Joyce and her husband had traveled by Goshen many times on their way to visit family on the East Coast. The lengthy travel and time away from home that is required for participating in the program worried Joyce, but she knew in her heart that the program was the right fit for her.
 
“Even though the repeated travel wasn’t ideal, it was worth it,” Joyce said. “The program emphasizes more than just diet. All the areas are important.”
 
Ornish Lifestyle Medicine focuses on simple changes in everyday life to improve heart health, regain quality of life and restore a sense of well-being. Class members meet for two hours twice a week, for a total of four hours. Each day includes an hour of supervised exercise and another hour of stress management.
 
The small group also attends presentations on nutrition and joins in a group meal. In group support sessions, class members meet with a social worker to share their successes and struggles, to encourage one another and to learn how to find the support they need to live their new lifestyle every day. 
 
For Joyce, the Ornish sessions turned into a life-changing experience. She learned how to watch food labels more carefully and keep true to a low to no-fat diet. Another important lesson learned – Joyce needed to up her water intake, since dehydration can cause arrhythmias.
 
When it came to exercise, Joyce realized she wasn’t pushing herself enough. She worked with the clinical exercise physiologists in the Cardiac Rehabilitation center to build an exercise program that suited her needs and gave her the courage to exercise more strenuously, which she found greatly increased her energy and stamina.
 
“I unburied the NordicTrack at home. My goal is to use it in the cold winter weather. I also have been using the trampoline and doing weather appropriate walking, bicycling and cross-country skiing,” she said.
 
She and her husband also take advantage of biking trails and walking paths around their neighborhood and beyond to get more steps into their day.

Learning to cope and connect with others for a healthy outlook on life

Stress management classes proved a turning point for Joyce.
 
“I knew my stress level was high,” Joyce said. “I needed to learn ways to deal with it.”
 
Joyce learned how to use deep breathing, stretching and meditation to calm herself. At home, she works on building up to the recommended hour a day of destressing. She takes 15-minute breaks during her day to stop, relax and work on her stress-relief skills. She also takes time to review the lessons from the Ornish program and is slowly reading through Dr. Ornish’s book, Undo It, which strengthens her motivation to keep following the program.
 
Support from friends and family has become another key to Joyce’s new outlook on life. She has reconnected with people across the country who have been important in her life.
 
Group text messages give Joyce and her husband a way to stay connected with others in Joyce’s Ornish class. The small group sends updates on activities, shares recipes,   and even offers up prayers for safety and calm during bad weather and other struggles.

Living healthy for a lifetime

Joyce sees signs of improvement in her health. By the time she and her husband left Goshen in November 2022, Joyce weighed the same as she did on her wedding day several decades ago. As long as she remains vegan, she has little trouble maintaining her weight – despite temptations to go on a snack rampage when stressed. Rather than choosing snacks high in carbohydrates, she is learning to grab celery or a carrot stick.
 
“I have more energy. Stairs and hills are easier for me now, and I can do a lot more,” Joyce said.
 
Joyce’s husband has mastered green smoothies and prepares them for the couple six days a week. On the seventh day, he makes a fruit bowl that he serves with non-dairy yogurt.
 
Potluck dinners give Joyce a chance to take vegan dishes and share her story about her life-changing experience at Goshen’s Ornish program.
 
“People come up to me and tell me how much they appreciate the food I bring,” she said. “I want to be an example to others.”
 
Sleep, which Joyce found is critical for good health, comes easier for her now – another sign that her choices in life are making a difference. Migraines no longer plague her if she stays away from dairy and other animal products.
 
“If I don’t maintain a vegan diet, I get in trouble,” Joyce said.
 
Thanks to Goshen’s Ornish program, Joyce knows what works best for her. She intends to try to stick to the program for good and rejoice in her heart-healthy life.
 
Goshen Heart & Vascular Center offers in-person classes on the 72-hour Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program every four to six weeks. Medicare and other health insurance carriers cover costs of the program for qualified participants.
 
For more information about the Ornish program, contact Connie Dobson, Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Services, at (574) 364-2587.

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