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February 4, 2010

Wear Red Day, conference promote women’s heart health

heartThe fashion forecast for tomorrow, Feb. 5, is red. Stylish champions of heart health will be sporting red dresses, ties or accessories to raise awareness about women’s heart disease risks during the annual National Wear Red Day, part of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women campaign.

During the lunch hour, volunteers wearing red scarves plan to take to the streets of Oakland to distribute red dress pins and spread the word about women’s heart health. Others will wear red to show their support for the AHA’s efforts to educate women about their risk of heart disease.

More attention needs to be drawn to heart disease in women, said Jeannette South-Paul,chair of Pitt’s Department of Family Medicine. “This is not a male disease. This is not just for old fat folks with white hair. And this is not an inevitable disease,” said South-Paul, who is co-chairing Pittsburgh’s Go Red for Women Conference on March 9.

The event is designed to demonstrate that most factors contributing to heart disease are things that are amenable to change, she said.

According to the AHA, one in three women has some form of cardiovascular disease, and in Pennsylvania, 65 women die each day of heart disease or stroke.

The message is a particularly apt one here: In Pittsburgh, 60 percent of women are overweight or obese; 61 percent don’t reach recommended exercise levels, and more than 20 percent smoke.

Of the 200 largest metro areas in the nation, Go Red for Women ranked Pittsburgh fourth from the bottom in its 2008 study of most heart-friendly cities for women, based on risk factors, women’s current heart health and mortality statistics.

“We’re not doing well in all of the areas that confer additional risk for women,” South-Paul said. “We’re actually pretty bad in a lot of ways.”

Most people have more than one risk factor, and most can’t name them all, she said. “Family history, plus smoking, plus obesity, plus cholesterol, plus diabetes, plus hypertension, plus sedentary lifestyle — every time you add one to the other, you increase your risk of being affected,” she said. “Add one risk to another and you exponentially increase your risk of being unhealthy.”

High on the list of risks that can be reduced: “We’ve got to stop smoking,” South-Paul said, noting that the percentage of female smokers in the Pittsburgh region ranks high, as does the number of pregnant women who smoke.

Taking charge of one’s diet and exercising more also are important.

South-Paul attributes some of the reasons behind the region’s poor health status to its working-class industrial heritage — a culture in which basics such as family and getting together to eat became the rewards. “There are tons of good benefits to these things,” she said. But while traditional local foods are delicious, many are horrible for your health — swimming in butter, fried or both, South-Paul noted.

No single ethnic cuisine can take the blame, she said. “The thing that unifies them all: They’re all high-calorie, high fat.”

South-Paul said she isn’t suggesting people should abandon their family favorites, “but be conscious and modify those family recipes to be more healthful.” For instance, she suggested, substitute a different type of oil for saturated fats; substitute turkey for ham hocks in that favorite collard greens recipe.

Also, cut back on red meat, eliminate salt and trade mini-mart foods for choices from the farmer’s market, she advised.

South-Paul said she hopes the tug of family ties also will motivate women to improve their heart health: Your kids — do you want to see them a long time? Spend time with your grandkids? Live to fulfill your career or personal goals? “You’ve got to take care of yourself,” she said.

Women tend to write off warning signs such as shortness of breath, decreased exercise capacity or fatigue. “Most of the risk factors don’t hurt until they really hurt you. It’s not like a broken leg that hurts the second you get it,” she said.

Often women are juggling many other responsibilities and put their own needs last. “If women are healthy, the family is more likely to be healthy,” she said. “Go take care of yourself.”

“Everyone is a potential victim,” South-Paul said. “Regardless of weight, color, neighborhood or background. Everyone’s vulnerable.”

“We have to own the fact that our health is our responsibility,” said Denise Edmonds, a staff member in the School of Education’s Department of Health and Physical Activity.

Women need to do more than simply wear the red dress pin in February, she said, challenging women to commit themselves to 30 minutes of exercise a day. “We owe it to ourselves,” she said.

Edmonds, 42, said she began exercising at a Downtown gym to relieve stress that built up in her accounting job. Her 30th birthday became her personal turning point and she committed to run the Great Race 5K with her dad, a long-distance runner.

“Society had me so scared about turning 30, I got myself together,” she said.

In the gym, she fell in love with spinning classes and later began to teach spinning, group exercise and personal training. Because she didn’t have the education to accompany her passion for the teaching, she began studying part-time for a master’s degree in Pitt’s exercise physiology program.

Now completing her doctoral degree in exercise physiology, Edmonds works as an interventionist, coaching an African-American cohort of participants in the RENEW diet and exercise study.

She has committed herself to personal fitness as well as to encouraging others to do the same. “Exercise like your life depends on it” has become her slogan.

Americans are heavier than ever — current statistics indicate that 7 in 10 are overweight, and the others, although they may maintain a healthy weight, may not necessarily be in good health, Edmonds said. Slick fast food advertisements entice viewers to stop in for a breakfast that may contain a whole day’s worth of calories. The car-oriented suburban culture contributes to a sedentary lifestyle, all to the detriment of good health.

Women are facing increasing stress levels as their roles at work and home become more demanding.

“We feel compelled to be everywoman. It is not to our benefit,” Edmonds said.

Minority women in general, and African-American women in particular, fare more poorly than white women in health measures, with higher rates of hypertension, kidney disease and diabetes, she said. “I was really concerned about that and why isn’t anybody doing anything?” While she’s not opposed to medication to combat these chronic conditions, much of the research returns to the fact that staying active can ward off these ailments, she said. “It seems so simple.”

Often, more attention is placed on the aesthetic aspects of maintaining a healthy weight rather than the health impact, she noted.

“Lower blood cholesterol isn’t as powerful an argument as is wanting to look like Halle Berry,” she said.

However, women need to take their health seriously.

“Ultimately we have not prioritized our health as women and as families,” she said, urging women to eat better, eat less and move more.

People view personal training as a luxury, she said. “It’s easier to go to the doctor and get a pill for your hypertension or medication for controlling your diabetes.”

Gym memberships aren’t free, but it’s a matter of priority, Edmonds maintains. Family cell phone plans might cost $200 a month; cable TV bills easily can rise above $100 a month. Cut back and “there’s your gym membership,” she said.

It’s not necessary to exercise in a gym, but if you choose not to, “have a plan if you’re not able to get out,” she said.

Plenty of exercise programs and channels are available on television. Walking at lunchtime or before and after work is another free option.

Maintaining activity levels and a healthy weight must be viewed as a lifestyle, not a chore, she said. “It should be part of what you do every day, like brushing your teeth. There are a lot of things you can be ambivalent about, but this isn’t one of them,” she said.

“Exercise is time to yourself — you are worth a half-hour,” she said, pointing out that current recommendations for daily activity call for 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week.

“We say we don’t have time,” but being busy is no excuse. “We need to do an honest assessment of the things we do, the places we go. How can we make good use of a lot of our time?” she said.

“If you keep a log of what you’re doing when you’re not working — Are you Facebooking? Did you Tivo a program you’re sitting in front of for an hour or two? You might have to give something up,” Edmonds said.

“The only way is to find the time. Write it down. A diary helps you to see, I do have 30 minutes without waking up early.”

Short bouts — 15 minutes of walking before work and 15 minutes after work, for example — are as good as one 30-minute session, she said.

Finding time may take a little creative thought, but it’s possible: Walk while the kids are at soccer practice or ballet lessons, rather than sitting and waiting for them; buddy up with neighbors or friends to keep motivation high. Involve your spouse or children to make exercise time double as family bonding time, she suggested.

“You need a lot of different support systems,” Edmonds said.

Educating yourself about exercise is another motivator. “Knowledge is power,” she said. “If you feel a level of comfort because you know what you’re doing then you have less apprehension about performing the task.” Resources are available online, in books and magazines, or through personal trainers and gym staff.

In addition, speak positively about your ability to reach your health goals.

Nike’s famed “Just do it” tagline isn’t just for athletes. “Make it your own,” she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow


School of Medicine faculty members Madelyn Fernstrom of psychiatry, epidemiology and surgery, and Jeannette E. South-Paul, chair of the Department of Family Medicine, will be the keynote speakers at the March 9 Go Red for Women Conference sponsored by Magee-Womens Hospital.

The event will feature a healthy heart fair, health screenings, educational breakout sessions and a reception at the Byham Theater and Renaissance Hotel, Downtown.

South-Paul and Jean Ferketish, assistant chancellor and secretary of Pitt’s Board of Trustees, are conference chairs.

Information on the event is available by calling 412/702-1194 or online at

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