How Go Red for Women helped one journalist focus on heart health – GoErie.com

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There they were, two brand new scales to weigh myself.
It had been at least seven months, but the time had come. My annual physical was just around the corner. 
I nervously stepped on the first scale: 224 lbs. 
Wait what? That cannot be right. I did just eat before this. Stepping off, I scooted the scale over near the trash can and quickly dismissed the inaccurate first read. “That’s just wrong,” I persuaded myself.
I stepped on the second scale: 224.6 lbs.???
Oh my God, noooo. 
Enough of that. I removed myself from the “weigh-in.”
Now for the blood pressure: 132/87. Higher than I’d like, but I’m sure there’s an excuse.
Pulse: 85. “Should that be lower in the morning?” I thought. “I haven’t even had tea, let alone coffee.” Coming to grips with my self-measured vital signs, I felt concerned. 
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I am used to long periods of sitting and working, eating while at the computer, putting in longer hours when needed. I get up and walk then right back to it. I feel fine. 
Then why were my numbers painting a different picture?
My precious mama died in 2013 at age 70. She had seemed the picture of health in her 50s.
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I considered my three children. They had grown up virtually without grandparents in their lives and can hardly remember them. I remember their disappointment each year on Grandparents Day. The time will come when our kids will start their own lives. Maybe they will want children, too. I must do my part to try and live a longer life.
“I must buckle down,” I thought. 
As a little girl growing up in the South, looking up at Black, beautiful older faces at church in the 1970s, I’d imagined, “How do people get to be old?” I’ve thought about aging over the years. It is a remarkable part of living.
“If God gives me the chance to see long life, I’d be a graceful old person, kind and classy,” I’ve told myself.
I considered the cholesterol medication, set down on my nightstand. It is my only prescribed medication and is optional, but I accepted my doctor’s opinion and (finally) started taking it in 2020. That’s because I realized I needed support managing my cholesterol and had not been able to do achieve my goals. I remind myself that I want to see old age someday.
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At age 57, I am the second oldest woman in my family. Only one woman is older.
She’s 59. 
And just like that, I feel the pressure to change now more than ever.
According to the American Heart Association, women who look like me have nearly two times the risk of stroke as white women and are more likely to die at an earlier age, when compared with women of other ethnicities. Cardiovascular diseases kill nearly 50,000 Black women each year, yet only 36% of Black women are aware that heart disease is their greatest health risk.
Thirty-six percent.
That’s terrible.
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I’ve survived a rough childhood, dangerous accidents, two terms of military service and yet somehow I missed this massive threat to women.
There is hope.
Women across the nation are engaging in an eight-week awareness campaign that has featured multiple events in Go Red for Women’s heart health. I am now diligently working to improve mine – morning, noon and night. 
Participating in the campaign has been a life-changing event. 
I gained weight after a plantar-fasciitis walking injury in 2020 coupled with a misstep while leaping off my front porch. That woeful double-injured foot sharply cut down daily tasks. Things as basic as walking through Wegmans suddenly disappeared from my life. 
I visited a specialist every few months. My daughter Jasmine coached me through the foot exercises, and I started to walk again without limping. Although my weight has yo-yoed up and down for years, having a foot injury changed everything. This time, I couldn’t do my usual and hop on the treadmill, ride the bike or go walking. I tried Total Gym Fit, which got me active and moving again. That kept the weight off my foot, but I needed fundamental change. 
“What am I really eating?” I asked myself. Maybe that’s the real issue. The complacency of an injury made it obvious. I had been so busy that I was eating out almost every day and had stopped cooking most meals.
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Dr. Brenda Davis of the University of Rochester Medical Center office in Penfield took me under her wing, so to speak. Her office engaged me at points, helping me take control of what’s happening through blood tests, recommending a colonoscopy I should have had years ago, asking when I will do this or that and prescribing a cholesterol med.
“I’m not used to this,” I thought. Davis took time, asked probing questions and genuinely seeming to care. Her involvement motivated me to become more preventive in watching over my health, as though I have a partner versus being on my own.
“I can do this,” I concluded.
So I got started last fall by joining my daughter Cydney on a lifestyle-fitness app she follows to manage healthy meals. But she and my other 20-somethings formed a singing group that rehearses into the night and they eat dinner after 9. Works for them; me, on the other hand? I plateaued after losing only 7 pounds from October to February.
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I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t discouraged.  Weighing 217 pounds at 5-foot 3-inches simply was not reflecting enough improvements in my vitals, which the doctor has me tracking.
Then one day, I scrolled through LinkedIn messages, and a request from my Facebook friend Melisza Campos caught my eye. She didn’t usually contact me on LinkedIn.
“As a volunteer for the American Heart Association, I was recently nominated to participate in a campaign called Woman of Impact. The AHA is looking for a select group of women from the Rochester area to participate in an 8-week campaign,” the message said.
She shared how women could be changemakers by learning how to use their voices to take charge of their heath. 
“Could I do something like this?” I asked myself.  “As a journalist, I can’t fundraise but what can I do?”
Well, my foot is almost 100% healed. I can donate, participate in team event and encourage other women. The team recently held an event led by fashion designer Nita Brown at her MansaWear clothing and accessories boutique and scheduled a celebrity bartending event at Branca Midtown Italian restaurant, both in Rochester. 
Volunteering with women from the Rochester area has been my inspiration to put in the work, become more active and lose the weight.
I follow the AHA check-in notes, adopted a low-sodium, low-calorie diet (low meat, too) along with lots more veggies, water and workouts. Knowing I live a busy life and don’t cook the kinds of meals I need when I need them, I signed onto Nutrisystem for the time being. That way, I only have to prep veggies and have my “smartcarbs” handy. I still can cook anytime I want.
So, I stepped on the scale the other morning: 203 lbs. “Progress,” I thought.
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Blood pressure: 112/72. Pulse: 74. Much improved. I feel more centered, definitely encouraged by seeing these results.
Now that I am aware and understand that women’s heart health is critical to our lives, I will pursue better health. I want to live a longer life (for myself, my family, future grandchildren), so I am working on my heart.
Cynthia Benjamin is the director of audience engagement and trust for the USA TODAY Network. Follow her @cynthiabenjamn. Contact cbenjami@gannett.com.

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