How Two Heart Attack Survivors Transformed Their Lifestyles and Lost a Combined 134 Pounds

'My mom and I are living proof that it's possible to outsmart your genes.'

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Cardiovascular disease could have killed them, but this mother-daughter duo team teamed up to do a health 180.

Multiple relatives, including Michelle's mother, have died from heart disease, but Kendel says she's modeling healthy choices so her kids know they can be different. (That's Carmen, 10, at left and Cora,11, at right.
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Kendel's Journey

I woke up one morning in December 2012 thinking I had come down with a sudden stomach bug. Just the night before, I'd gone to Zumba and ended the evening with a cigarette — my usual ritual. I'd felt fine. Now I was nauseous and sweaty, and I had an unusual pain in my jaw. Then I noticed a dull pins-and-needles feeling in my fingertips. Suddenly it clicked. When my mom had experienced her heart attack 11 years earlier, she'd told us that her fingers tingled. I panicked and asked my husband to drive me to the ER.

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There, doctors confirmed that I'd had a heart attack. Even though I was young, I can't say I was shocked. I was overweight: I also ate too much fast food, exercised irregularly, and had been diagnosed with high cholesterol at age 13. But I had two daughters who needed me, so I decided to clean up my act — literally. When I was released from the hospital, one of the first things I did was tear through my kitchen, tossing anything unhealthy. I also started cardiac rehab, where I began walking regularly, even if for just 10 minutes. At first it wasn't easy, but I always felt amazing when I finished. My head was clear and my body energized, and that was enough to keep me committed.

I recruited my mom to join me. We started walking together and sharing healthy recipe ideas, which helped me lose more than 40 pounds. Being able to make a difference in my mom's well-being was so rewarding that I went back to school to become a dietitian. Now I can encourage more people to treat their hearts with care.

Michelle's Journey

For most of my life, my diet was heavy on fried food. I was also an emotional eater; after a stressful day at work, I could put away a whole pizza. Even though my mother passed away from a massive heart attack at age 54, I never thought to change my ways. I'd like to say my heart attack was a wake-up call — I did cut back on salt and start walking — but I quickly returned to my old habits and began gaining weight.

No excuses. I am in charge of me.

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By the time Kendel had her heart attack, I'd put on 77 pounds. Enough was enough. With Kendel's support, I learned how to treat my body properly. Now the first thing I do in the morning is pop in a fitness DVD. Sweating away stress means I'm less inclined to reach for food for a feel-good fix. So far, I've dropped all 77 of the pounds I gained — plus an additional 13. The weight loss is nice, but it's my healthy heart that I'm most proud of.

I Love My...

  • Pinterest Recipes: "I click to the site when I need healthy meal inspo. If you look at my board, you can see when I had my heart attack. The posts shifted overnight from cheesy pasta bakes to quinoa dishes." — Kendel
  • Mini Refrigerator: "I stash my lunches and snacks in a separate small fridge. When I go to grab veggie slices to munch on, I know I won't come out with cheese sticks." — Kendel
  • Support Group: "Kendel started a get-healthy club, where we swap advice and cheer one another on. Being around women with the same goal inspires me to keep at it. We're there to get in shape for life, not just swimsuit season." — Michelle
  • Activity Tracker: "I used to assume I was moving a lot because I was so tired after work, but I got a Fitbit and learned I was walking only 4,000 steps a day. The gadget holds me accountable. Now I hit 15,000 steps!" — Michelle

Kendal's Must-Dos

1. Be Your Own Doc

Between visits to the cardiologist, I monitor my blood pressure at home to stay on top of my health. If it starts to climb even a little, I know it's time to exercise more.

2. Spice It Up

When I cut down on butter, cream, and sodium, I had to lean on fragrant spices, like mustard seeds, to bring my meals to life. I love them! There's an exciting world of flavor beyond salt, pepper, and garlic powder.

3. Celebrate You

It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of a party and let health goals slide. I remind myself that just because it's someone's birthday, there's no contract stating I must eat their cake. When it's my birthday, digging into that treat is even sweeter.

Kendel and Michelle beef up stir-fry with broccoli and peppers.

Heart Attacks End Here

"Cardiovascular disease has been part of our family for too long, but it's stopping with me," Kendel says. "I'm determined to teach my daughters to love their hearts so the trend doesn't carry on to them. My mom and I are living proof that it's possible to outsmart your genes."

This story originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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