Ann Puetz of North Center is the picture of good health. At age 40 she is a long-distance runner who has gone for 5-mile runs daily for the past five years and has completed eight marathons.
Despite a weakness for comfort foods and good wine, she is dedicated to her daily cardio training and is confident she’ll never stop.
But early this year, just three weeks before she was scheduled to run in the Bayshore Memorial Day Marathon in Traverse City, Wisconsin, Ann’s confidence was shaken.
During an annual check-up, her primary care physician discovered a mild abnormality in her heart beat. And with a family history of heart disease and a personal history of borderline-high cholesterol, Ann did not take the findings lightly. Because of the unique amount of strain about to be placed on Ann’s heart during the run, she and her doctor agreed that a precautionary stress test would be the best way to determine how well her heart was working and allay her fears.
“I felt fine physically, but I had to double-check that my heart was strong enough for the marathon and that everything was OK,” Ann said.
During a stress test, a patient exercises on a treadmill which increases in speed and steepness every three minutes. The patient continues until he or she reaches the point of where they can't exercise any more because of extreme shortness of breath, fatigue, chest pain or abnormal changes on the electrocardiogram (EKG) charts.
“Typically patients stay on the treadmill for six to 10 minutes based on their fitness level and age, but Ann didn’t stop for 16 minutes — five minutes longer than we predicted,” Dr. Stecy said. “Five minutes might not seem like a long time to the average person, but since the treadmill is constantly picking up speed and incline, it gets quite challenging after the 12-minute mark.”
Despite Dr. Stecy’s enthusiastic reaction to her test results, Ann personally didn’t feel there was anything extraordinary about her performance, but rather was just relieved to hear that she had nothing to worry about come race day.
“After seeing the results of my test, they [cardiologists and staff] seemed impressed and were telling me I could finish the marathon in under four hours — 18 minutes faster than my best marathon time,” Ann said. “I told them I wasn’t up for that, but I guess my heart was on race day, because I ended up beating my record by 28 minutes.”
Ann completed the marathon in 3 hours, 49 minutes and qualified for the Boston Marathon, which she may run next April.
Although most people do not need to go to the lengths that Ann did to ensure their hearts are healthy, Dr. Stecy felt her case was a good example of how being proactive about preventing heart disease can pay off.
“If you have concerns about your heart, it’s not necessary for you to get a stress test on a whim,” Stecy said. “Just find a physician you can trust and talk to about the appropriate testing and preventative steps.”
According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. And while many valuable diagnostic tests — including EKGs and stress tests — are readily available to help identify heart problems which do not present outward symptoms, heart disease prevention starts with a healthy lifestyle.
Dr. Stecy recommends that if you have a family history of a heart condition, a personal history of diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol, or have experienced chest pain or irregular heart rates, go see your doctor. And in the meantime, exercise regularly, don’t smoke and eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
Check out these heart-healthy exercise tips from the American Heart Association
Photo by Iwona Biedermann.