Heart Health

29 May 2009

A Pilgrim for health

Locla celeb Mark Pilgrim has made a stunning recovery after suffering a severe heart attack less than a year ago. So how did he do it? Through healthy eating and exercise, he says.

Veteran radio jock and TV presenter Mark Pilgrim shocked the country last year when he suffered a severe heart attack – and many people wondered how someone who's renowned for being fit and exceptionally health–conscious - could have suffered a heart attack.

Mark Pilgrim says his recovery is down to healthy living.

So how does someone who appears to be the poster-boy for health and fitness, suffer a severe heart attack at the age of 40?

Dr Anthony Yip (cardiologist at Life Fourways Hospital) says that it's actually not that uncommon. "There are a number of reasons why he could have suffered a heart attack even if he was fit and healthy – and top of the list is genetics. If he had a family history of heart disease in his family, his risk factor for having a heart attack would have been high," he said. Turns out, he was right.

"I have a family history of heart disease, and despite the fact that I was an extremely healthy eater, I didn’t realise that my liver was producing cholesterol - even though I wasn’t eating much of it. So without me realising it, my cholesterol levels shot up and blocked an artery," he explains.

Age not always a factor
Yip says that coronary artery disease (CAD) is primarily caused by atherosclerosis which is a combination of a number of factors. Top of the list is genetics; then high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure and smoking. These are considered the Big Five risk factors of heart attacks.

"Mark isn't the youngest heart attack case I've heard of; in fact I have treated a man of 29 for CAD, and even carried out a bypass on a 34 year old kick boxer who was extremely fit but happened to have a strong family history of heart disease," he explains.

Yet many still believe that only old men get heart attacks – and, although it's true that older men are more predisposed to heart problems, Yip points out that no-one is totally immune to heart attacks.

"In men the age group to start watching is between 40 and 60, as these are most likely to start presenting with heart attacks. In fact, more men are affected in the early years than women - we believe is this is because oestrogen may somehow protect the heart."

'Take all types of pain seriously'
According to Yip, if you're a man who falls into any of the Big Five risk factor groups and are between the ages of 40 and 60, you should treat any type of pain seriously, as not all heart attacks present like they do in the movies.

"Although a typical heart attack starts with a crushing central chest pain which spreads down the left arm and to the jaw with sweating and palpitations, not everyone experiences the 'typical' heart attack,” said Yip.

He adds that some people suffer abdominal pain, or sharp stabbing pains, or even merely shortness of breath. Regardless though, he urged anyone with a predisposition to heart disease to take any and all forms of pain seriously.

This point was never more pertinent than in Pilgrim's case. He first felt stabbing pains in his chest on July 14, 2008 while working on the set of the TV show The Power of 10.

Unfortunately he ignored them and it was only a few days later that he decided to visit the doctor. He suffered a heart attack while in the doctor’s office – a coincidence which just may have saved his life.

Pilgrim was then rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery where he was treated for an obstructed coronary artery, basically a blockage in the artery caused by cholesterol. He had a stent implanted, and less than a year later is looking as fit and healthy as he did before the heart attack.

Healthy lifestyle paramount to recovering
Less than a year later Pilgrim is back on the airwaves on KFM and Highveld Stereo, and looks just as good as he did before the heart attack. So what's his secret to making such a fast and seemingly full recovery?

"I’m doing very well and am at the gym probably five or six times a week. Obviously I’m training a lot lighter than I used to, but I’m still making sure the heart gets a little exercise!" he says.

He adds that he was eating correctly and exercising a lot before the heart attack, so fortunately he hasn't had to make too many changes to his lifestyle. The only real change is that he now takes medication to keep the cholesterol levels down.

Surviving cancer
Yet this is not the first time Pilgrim has faced major health problems, he overcame stage four testicular cancer, which spread to his lungs and kidneys when he was just 18.

"Chemotherapy was the outer manifestation of the disease for me, as it was the chemo and not the cancer itself that made me so ill. Nevertheless, I forced myself to endure the chemo. There were days I would wake up and say ‘no more’, but I also told myself that not everyday was going to be a good day, knowing that the following day I would wake up with the will to fight. "

He eventually beat the cancer and is now a patron of Cansa, and a friend to the Reach for a Dream Foundation.

Keeping fit
An avid gym-goer, Pilgrim admits he cannot workout as much or as vigorously as he used to before the heart attack as his heart is still recovering.

"Twenty percent of my heart still does not know that it’s supposed to be beating," he says. Bearing this in mind he follows the following exercise schedule:

Five days a week he does:

  • 20 minutes cardio (at 7km/h...a brisk walk).
  • Five minutes stomach (normally crunches and leg raises: three sets of 20 reps for each exercise).
  • 10 minutes of weights (one body part per day: two different exercises per body part. three sets of 12 reps per exercise).

"I am slowly building this part of my exercise regime up over time, not going heavier, just more sets."

His daily diet, although mostly unchanged as he was eating healthy before the heart attack, goes something like this:

  • 7am - High fibre bran mixed with raw nuts for protein as well as crushed flaxseed and pumpkin seeds).
  • 10am – Egg white (four egg whites) sandwich on Woolies “lower cholesterol bread”.
  • 1pm – Always a protein (normally chicken or tuna), carbs (usually backed potato or jasmine rice) and veg/salad.
  • 4pm – "My decadent treat for the day... two slices of Woolies bread with peanut butter...yum!"
  • 7pm – Supper involving a protein (once a week only do I have red meat, which is usually ostrich mince from Woolies as it’s really low in fat), carb and a veg.

Life after a health scare
"It sounds so clichéd but it does make you appreciate life more. I don’t get upset over the small things in life. I just shrug them off knowing that there have been times when there were much bigger things to worry about," he says, adding that the first time he realised how precious his health was, was after the cancer when he started going to gym on a regular basis and "not taking my body for granted and eating healthy".

As someone that is no in no doubt how precious and fragile good health is, he has lots of advice for people in similar situations and is a big supporter of a healthy lifestyle, although he points out that next to this, the most important thing is to know your numbers.

"You have to know your numbers when it comes to cholesterol; and the numbers mean so much more if you have a family history of heart disease. For instance, my cholesterol level when I had the heart attack was 5.8.

"That number for a ‘normal’ person is elevated, but not necessarily life threatening. But if you have a family history of heart disease, anything over 5 should be a major red flag. You should check your cholesterol at least once a year," he says.

Pilgrims tips for eating healthy

  • In-between meals I force myself (don’t always enjoy it) to have a banana and an apple sometime during the day.
  • Egg whites are always cooked as a pancake with a little spray and cook in the pan… and nothing else.
  • I use a dose of pure virgin olive oil as a dressing for salads (the Gallo brand tastes great). Remember olive oil is extremely healthy as long as you don’t heat it up. That’s why, even though it’s better than using sunflower oil, if you are cooking with it, still use it sparingly. It changes its composition once heated.
  • I take a good multi-vitamin supplement everyday.
  • I have at least one tablespoon of flaxseed on my breakfast every morning (because Dr Oz said so on Oprah!). It’s important though that if you are using the actual flaxseeds (as opposed to the oil capsules) you must crush them in a grinder so your body can absorb them.
  • If I feel peckish during the day and I don’t want to eat any more fruit, I will grab a handful of raw nuts (almonds, cashews).
  • If I am having dinner at Pigalle in Sandton. I always have a food cheat. They do the most amazing apple berry crumble!

"Both illnesses have not hampered my life or career in anyway. I think this is partly because I am not ashamed of either disease. I am proud of being a survivor.

Sources: Mark Pilgrim, Dr Anthony Yip, Cardiologist, Life Fourways Hospital; Sapa.

(Amy Henderson, Health24, May 2009)

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