Bob Harper created a lifestyle, and career, out of being the picture of health. The 51-year-old fitness professional and former host of Biggest Loser religiously trained twice a day, all while keeping a careful eye on his nutrition.
“I was doing everything right,” Harper says, sitting at a café near his Manhattan apartment. “I had created a routine that had me feeling great.”
That’s what made it all the more shocking when, on February 12, he went into cardiac arrest on the floor of a gym in New York. Luckily, the gym had an AED (automated external defibrillator) on hand and an off-duty doctor happened to be working out nearby. Later the cause was revealed: A hereditary condition resulting in high levels of Lipoprotein particle in the blood, which puts him at a higher risk for heart attacks despite his clean living.
Just a few months later, Harper is already on the road to recovery, even returning to the weight rack. Instead of letting the event stop him, it has become a motivating force and a new means by which to help others.
Do you remember the day of the heart attack?
Not really. I have sort of figured it out through what others have told me. I had been feeling dizzy. I went to do my typical morning workout, which was a hero-type CrossFit one. The people in the class say that I was acting a little strangely, and even laid down during one of the sessions, which is not like me at all. The next thing I knew I woke up in a hospital gurney two days later, and I found out later I had technically died from a heart attack.
Sounds like you still don’t believe it happened.
I can’t fucking believe it. I still feel like I’m on the outside looking in. But it has been completely eye opening. I know it sounds cliché but I have had that epiphany that life is so short. I have realized that I don’t need to stress out about what my next job is or whatever bullshit is out there. Life is meant to be enjoyed.
How are you doing now?
Now I have been kind of sent back to the drawing board. I am working with Doctor Dean Ornish, who really wants me to be leading a vegetarian lifestyle, where I really watch my fat. For this diet he has started to incorporate non-fat Greek yogurt and egg whites to his regime, which is great for me. He asked me to do it for 30 days at least, and I am going to start this month.
I am sure you miss the gym.
It was my stress relief. It was the place where I felt the best in my day. I have been processing that a lot recently. I had a mission to defy what age looked like to men, and I had always worked toward that. Now I am dealing with the fact that I am not going to be Superman. I am not going to be that guy. What does the new me look like? My doctors are trying to help me find other outlets. Telling me that life doesn’t have to be just about killing it in the gym. But I still love fitness.
How did you deal with those first few weeks?
I would walk around my block, without a purpose. It became really depressing, not being able to do anything. I didn’t have the strength or the energy for it. I tried to read. I tried to take it easy. But that is still hard for me. Imagine having everything that you thought about yourself being stripped from you.
Have you started your rehab yet?
I was really lucky because a lot of people who suffer heart attacks do not go to rehab, whether it is because of time constraints or insurance purposes. Now I can’t even imagine not going to it. The people that do want rehab usually have to wait for a while. I was really lucky, because I was able to get into rehab just a month after. I remember going in there and it was the first time I was in anything that resembled a gym.
What was the first exercise you did there?
I did the ergometer and walked on the treadmill. Probably between three to five miles per hour, and it was still fucking hard. I had a bit of a freak out after, because it was the first time that I had been working out again. I thought I was going to go home and have another heart attack. I was really lucky that I had people around me 24/7 after the event, but this was going to be the first time that I was on my own. I had this dark fantasy that it was going to happen again.
Now that it has been a few months, where are you at fitness-wise?
Now I am able to go on pretty serious walks, for about an hour or so. I am able to do yoga, so I have been taking classes at Laughing Lotus to build my strength. I use the iPhone watch to monitor my heart rate, and it’s super accurate. They just started letting me do a weight training section in my rehab. Of course the trainer in me wants to reprogram it. But they are keeping me on the system. It’s eight movements and you do 15 reps of each of them. Chest press. Overhead press. Just sticking to the fundamentals. I remember that first time looking down at all of the weights, and [was asked] to do the 10-pound weights. I mean, I used to clean and jerk 225. But when I picked them up, those 10-pound weights were serious. Everyone there has been great, and I am really feeling better.
Sounds like the rehab really helped you.
I get really sad for the people who are kept from that kind of treatment because of financial or time constraints. There is so much that you have to take. I have gotten so many stories since it happened. Before this even happened I thought that I had been helping people, but now it’s incredible who has been reaching out to me. It’s a whole other group.
Have you learned anything else through your experience that you’re hoping to spread to the world?
My mission now is to make sure that there are AEDs in every gym or fitness building. I don’t want to workout anywhere that doesn’t have one around. If they hadn’t had one there at Brick, I could have died for real. They are so incredibly simple to use, anyone can, and it can be the difference between life and death.