Illustrations by Hannah Johnson
Graphic of heart
For years, a feeling of intense fatigue had often left New London resident Marcus McCleery on life’s sidelines, leading to rapid weight gain. In 2008, at 372 pounds, McCleery was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AF), an abnormally fast beating of the heart, and two electrophysiology ablation surgeries soon followed. The surgeries would restore McCleery’s normal heart rhythm and, in turn, his energy by strategically scarring the heart tissues that were triggering his AF.
Six months after McCleery’s second surgery, his surgeon said he was cured and told him to go live his life. “I asked him if he was telling me to lose weight—at nearly 400 pounds, I knew it was a no-brainer question,” McCleery says. “He said, ‘No. I’m asking you to move 15 minutes a day.’”
McCleery took those words to heart—literally. “I felt like I had a responsibility to take care of this new heart inside of me,” he says.
In January 2010, with wife Rebecca’s support, McCleery joined a gym and sought a nutritionist’s help to change his relationship with food. One year later, he’d lost 183 pounds. In June 2011, he completed his first triathlon, and he continues to participate in triathlon and half-marathon events. Someday, McCleery aspires to complete a Half Ironman—a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run.
“I like to say I have an on-demand body,” McCleery says. “I may not excel at anything, but I could try everything!” He’s also found a career in fitness, running his own business as a personal trainer and life coach.
McCleery is also enjoying a host of heart-healthy benefits, including lower blood pressure. “Exercise lowers the blood pressure, especially if accompanied by weight loss. Each pound lost can reduce your blood pressure by one point,” says Dr. Jeffrey Chambers, president and director of research at Metropolitan Heart and Vascular Institute at Mercy Hospital. Exercise also improves your cholesterol levels by lowering LDL (bad cholesterol) and increasing HDL (good cholesterol).
Plus, keeping active cuts your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea, all of which increase your risk of coronary artery disease. And in patients with diabetes and pre-diabetes, exercise helps stabilize glucose levels.
Regular workouts can even help you catch a heart problem in the early stages when it’s more treatable, as some symptoms, like pressure in your chest or back or slight shortness of breath, are more evident when you’re pushing yourself physically.
And of course, exercise aids weight loss. “Abdominal or truncal obesity —the ‘spare tire’—is a strong predictor of cardiovascular risk,” says Dr. Marc Newell, medical director of the Heart Hospital at Abbott Northwestern Hospital and the Edina Centennial Lakes clinic for the Minneapolis Heart Institute. But it has short-term heart benefits, too. “Even if you are not noticing a dramatic improvement in weight with your exercise routine, your heart still benefits,” Newell adds.