The Heart of the Matter

Eleven Acadiana women take the Go Red for Women campaign’s first fitness challenge.

Danielle Keeton, Kat Bergeron and Dawn Foreman of Personally Fit with AHA’s Laura Broussard (front); Suzanne Thibodeaux, Colleen Romero, Michelle Devall, Dolly Kistner and Flo Meadows (second row, seated); and Simone Tompkins, Charlene Gleason, Birdella Sinegal, Christina Boutte and Robin Hakala (not pictured: Ellen Ventress)

Photo by Robin May

Although heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, many women are not aware of their risk of mortality from this often silent illness. In fact, 63 percent of women who died from coronary artery disease had no previous cardiac symptoms. “The disease kills more women than men every year,” emphasizes Laura Broussard, regional director of the American Heart and American Stroke Association.

For the past five years, AHA has focused on educating women about heart disease through its “Go Red for Women” program. Three years ago, the Lafayette AHA chapter started the Go Red for Women luncheon to spread the word in Acadiana. The popularity of this event has increased exponentially, from 100 attendees the first year to about 375 in 2008. This year, the local group is stepping it up a notch by adding a fitness component — The Go Red for Women Personally Fit Challenge.

Starting Jan. 29, 11 area women will report to Personally Fit to begin a 12-week diet and exercise program geared toward reducing their risk of heart disease. From 37 applicants, these “poster children” were selected based on their family and personal histories of cardiac problems. The inaugural group — Dolly Kistner, Colleen Romero, Christina Boutte, Flo Meadows, Ellen Ventress, Simone Tompkins, Birdella Sinegal, Suzanne Thibodeaux, Michelle Devall, Charlie Gleason and Robin Hakala — will complete the challenge on April 23.

During the program, participants will work with a personal trainer three days a week and have a group exercise session. They will also meet with a nutritionist and attend a weekly  nutrition lesson. “We look at the whole person from the head down to the toes and what each person’s daily requirements are in terms of activities,” explains Dawn Foreman, owner of Personally Fit. “And we base our program on that. We work with the entire body. It’s not working with just the heart, because everything else has to work properly as well,” adds Foreman, who is a registered dietitian and clinical exercise specialist.

These ladies will exercise for a minimum of five days a week, following guidelines from the American College for Sports Medicine for cardiovascular and aerobic training. Exercise sessions will last 60 minutes and consist of cardiovascular, circuit training and functional strength training, which involves resistance training without using a lot of machine weights. “These personal training programs will challenge these ladies to go further than they would normally push themselves, so that they can actually see progress toward their weight loss, as well as toward reducing their blood pressure and cholesterol levels,” Foreman says.

Regarding diet, a nutritionist will help the women eliminate foods — such as white bread, rice, pasta, potatoes and cereals — that tend to sabotage results. Gradually, the participants will add in healthier counterparts — spaghetti squash instead of pasta; whole wheat versus white starches; sweet potatoes substituted for white ones. As they progress, the ladies will decrease fat consumption and increase foods that will improve their energy levels. “We focus more on food choices,” Foreman explains. “Instead of depriving your body, the most important thing you can do for it is to fuel it with the nutrients that it needs. Whenever you put something in your mouth, you want to make sure that you are getting something out of it — if it doesn’t provide your body with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, or nutrients that it needs, then it doesn’t need to go in your mouth.”

For the 11 selected women, the program is free. The challenge is also available to the public for $300. This fee includes unlimited access to Personally Fit, as well as the nutrition and group training components.

The fitness challenge has several goals — most important is to help the women make changes to their lives that will dramatically impact their overall risk of heart disease. “We will try to break that cycle in their family where they have a high incidence for heart disease — high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart attack,” Foreman says. Another goal is to increase women’s awareness about their risk for cardiac problems. “Women are always worried about their risk for other diseases, such as breast cancer and ovarian cancer, which is important,” she continues. “But sometimes, we think that heart disease is just a man’s disease, and it’s really not.”

By following the participants’ progress, organizers hope to inspire other women who might be at risk to make lifestyle changes. During the next three months, The Independent Weekly’s Health & Medical Monthly feature will include an update on how the ladies are doing to achieve their goals through the fitness challenge.

For more information about the Go Red for Women campaign and the fitness challenge, visit . or call Personally Fit at (337) 989-LADY.