Women and Heart Disease: 3 Days Can Change Your Life!

You have the power to prevent and even reverse heart disease by adopting healthful habits. Here’s how to start.

Medically reviewed in April 2021

It’s never too late to make that big change and win the battle against heart disease. Ada was in her eighties and had received eight stents and two pacemakers when she joined the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program. She had a new great-grandson, and she wanted to survive long enough that he could recognize her. “Now, he knows who I am,” she says happily. (Read more about Ada in the Ornish Living story, “Commit to it and Do it; It Can Change Your Life”)

The signs may be subtle
One in three American women die of heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular problems, yet women are underrepresented in studies of the disease, according to a statement from the American Heart Association in the February, 2017 issue of Circulation. Women often don’t experience the classic symptoms of a heart attack that send so many men to emergency rooms: a sharp chest pain, shortness of breath or cold sweats. Instead, they are more likely to have a “silent ischemia,” when the heart muscle briefly receives too little or no oxygen. A sudden pain might appear in the jaw or upper back or arms, rather than the chest. A woman might feel tired or as if she has flu. Some doctors may even brush off these symptoms as related to other causes.

The signs may be subtle—but the damage to the heart can be serious – and even deadly without treatment. All women need to understand their risk factors and be their own best advocates. Don’t delay: seek immediate medical attention if you suspect heart trouble.

The good news: You have the power to prevent and even reverse heart disease by adopting healthful habits. Ornish Lifestyle Medicine has grown out of 35 years of demonstrating that when people adopt a healthful diet, exercise, manage stress and connect with others they do wonders for their heart health.

It is always a good idea to check with your doctors before starting any new exercise or lifestyle regimen. Some people are tempted to start slow, adding say, a salad at dinner and a walk once a week. However, making more dramatic changes actually may be a more effective strategy. Participants in the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program often feel so much better, so quickly, they’re motivated to do more. After all, everyone loves feeling strong and vibrant!

Take a three day challenge
Why not try it—take the challenge for just three days and you just might experience a life-saving revolution.

Eat plants
The Ornish Diet” is a low-fat, whole food plant-based approach that has been voted the “#1 for Heart Health” in U.S. News and World Report for seven years in a row by an independent panel of experts in nutrition. Ornish Lifestyle Medicine focuses on eating a variety of nutrient-rich, whole, plant-based foods. These include vegetables, high-fiber whole grains and legumes (beans, lentils, dried peas). The Ornish diet doesn’t include meat, poultry, seafood, fish, egg yolks or added fats such as oils. It also limits processed foods and added sugar. (Limited egg whites and nonfat dairy are optional.)

To help you get started, enjoy three days of menus with satisfying and delicious recipes from the Ornish Kitchen, including “Mushroom and Spinach Lasagna” or “Thai Vegetable Curry.” For these three days eliminate meat, fish, seafood, dairy and egg yolks and avoid processed and refined foods and see how you feel.

No meat at all?
Yes. A plant-based diet is a cost-effective and low-risk way to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, blood-sugar and cholesterol levels. It is the best way to protect your heart. A multi-site team concluded in a 2015 overview published in Permanente Journal that a plant-based diet is an effective approach for the prevention of heart disease.

Get 30 minutes or more of moderate aerobic exercise each day. When you adopt the program over a longer period, you might exercise an hour every other day. During one of those days, do some strength-training. We encourage our participants to build their muscles in up to three sessions a week. Don’t overdo it—do just enough for your trial that you feel energized, not exhausted.

In her twenties, Brenda learned that she would probably need a heart transplant one day. “Over the years, I’ve needed a defibrillator and pacemaker, and by June of 2015, I was walking with a cane and could barely wash the dishes,” she says. Six months after receiving a new heart, she joined Ornish Lifestyle Medicine. At first she could walk for only three minutes, but soon she could exercise for forty minutes at a time. (For more about Brenda, see “A New Heart is a Gift and a Responsibility that Requires Follow-up Care.”)

Calm your mind
Then for the three days, carve out an hour to practice stress management. Allow yourself to experience an inner connection, a peace, an opening of your heart through a variety of relaxation techniques such as imagery, deep breathing progressive relaxation and restorative yoga. You can simply start with a conscious intent of slowing down and being present in the moment. You might focus on a calming image or follow your breath. (See Ornish LivingImagery: One of the Most Powerful Healing Tools We Have” and “Setting the Stage for Meditation”).

The stress-management technique you practice is less important than consistency. Begin by choosing a time and place where you will practice your technique each of the three days. It might be when you wake up, before dinner or before you go to sleep. If you keep it up, chances are you’ll begin to look forward to your practice—your special time to de-stress.

Don’t worry about getting it right–you don’t have to master elaborate skills to reap the enormous benefits of peacefulness. Brenda reminds herself to practice this technique: “Ask your heart, what do you need from me today?”

Connect to love
Giving and receiving love and support makes you healthier and happier. Each day, take the time to connect with family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and volunteer buddies. Focus on practicing good communication, which includes identifying and expressing how you are truly feeling, listening to others and acknowledging how they are feeling with empathy, caring and compassion.

Take the time to make and celebrate a connection and your body will thank you. The magic of love cannot fail to amaze over time.

That’s it: eat healthy, move more, relax and stress less and enjoy more moments of love and connection. Try it for three days and see how you feel.

Want to know about some additional benefits of an active, connected lifestyle. Read. Why More Playtime Will Improve Your Life.

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

More On

The Power of Sharing Pregnancy Loss


The Power of Sharing Pregnancy Loss
We can't predict who will have pregnancy loss and who will not. Dr. Caudle, Dr. Hauser, Dr. Hilton, and Dr. Minaya discuss grief around miscarriage.
What You Need to Know About Vaginal Prolapse


What You Need to Know About Vaginal Prolapse
Vaginal prolapse is incredibly common, affecting up to 40 percent of postmenopausal women, according to some research. Yet this highly treatable condi...
10 Biggest Pregnancy Myths, Debunked


10 Biggest Pregnancy Myths, Debunked
Can you drink coffee? Should you avoid your cat? An OBGYN weighs in. 
Endometriosis: Treatment Options


Endometriosis: Treatment Options
Endometriosis is a disorder in which tissue that lines the uterus can be found on the ovaries, fallopian tubes or the intestines. In this video, Patri...
What are Braxton-Hicks contractions?


What are Braxton-Hicks contractions?
Braxton-Hicks are practice contractions that some women experience starting mid-pregnancy. Watch this video featuring nurse midwife Paula Greer to lea...