Anali Diaz with her second grandson Xander Ortega. (Photo courtesy of Anali Diaz)

Anali Diaz with her second grandson Xander Ortega. (Photo courtesy of Anali Diaz)

A cardiac arrest nearly killed Anali Diaz, but it was the news that she was going to become a grandmother that spurred her to get serious about her health.

For years, Diaz, who lives in Clearwater, Florida, constantly felt exhausted, but figured that was just part of juggling a busy life. Then 37, she was working the night shift as a nurse and raising three kids.

Cooking often gave way to fast food. When she did cook, she often turned to her favorite rice and bean dishes or fried foods she loved while growing up in a Cuban-Puerto Rican family. She’d played sports in school, but never developed an exercise habit after high school.

“After my having my third kid, I really just let myself go,” Diaz said. “I was always tired, so I just went with the flow, eating junk food and drinking coffee at night.”

In November 2011, heart palpitations woke Diaz. It got worse as the day went on, so she went to the emergency room. There she was diagnosed with paroxysmal supraventricular tachycardia, or PSVT, a type of rapid heart rate caused by a disruption of electrical signals in the heart.

At the hospital, the irregular heartbeat caused her heart to stop, requiring a defibrillator to shock her heart back to its normal beat. She needed medication and an emergency cardiac ablation procedure to destroy the heart tissue causing the abnormal rhythm.

Since then, she’s had two more cardiac ablations and a mitral valve replacement, and was put on more medication.

But it was in 2013, the year she became a grandmother, that she reevaluated how she was managing her health.

“I was terrified something else could happen and just wanted to be healthy so that I could be there for my grandbaby,” she said.

Anali Diaz (middle) with her daughters Bianca Ortega (left) and Alianis Olivencia.

Anali Diaz (middle) with her daughters Bianca Ortega (left) and Alianis Olivencia. (Photo courtesy of Anali Diaz)

She started incorporating the things she’d learned in cardiac rehabilitation into her everyday life. She made healthy dishes for herself, eating a salad with chicken or fish while her family ate rice and beans and other dishes she loved.

“I would try to remind myself that I still was able to sit down with them because God gave me a second chance,” she said. “After seeing me struggle, my family started little by little to eat what I was eating to give me support.”

There are many ways to change your diet, including eliminating certain foods, altering recipes to make them healthier or limiting portion size, said Judith Wylie-Rosett, Ed.D., R.D., a professor and division head for the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

“The key is to think about what works for you and your family,” she said.

Wylie-Rosett suggests planning meals ahead of time and when eating out to scan restaurant menus online before you go so that you can plan for a healthier offering. Placing your order first when dining with a group can also help “so that you aren’t tempted by what others are ordering.”

“Be more purposeful, and if you slip up, don’t just give up,” she said. “Think about what you can learn and figure out a new way that works better for you. Eating healthy is a continuous process and every meal is a new decision.”

Allow yourself to indulge on occasion, but treat it like a vacation, with planning and a specific endpoint, Wylie-Rosett said. “If you’re going to have a favorite meal or dish, slow down and savor every bite instead of gobbling it down and feeling guilty.”

As part of her effort to get healthy, Diaz began taking exercise classes nearly every day, first alone, and then accompanied by her family, ultimately becoming an instructor for a dance class.

“Even my little grandson knows the whole routine,” she said.

Motivation can be a powerful factor in starting an exercise habit, but it often isn’t enough to sustain it, said Russell Pate, Ph.D., professor of exercise science with the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina. Other factors, such as having easy access to perform the physical activity and support from family and friends, are also crucial.

“The best approach is to find physical activities you enjoy, that you are competent in and that you can get to easily,” he said.

For adults, the American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity — or a combination of both — each week. But Pate said the key is to do something, even if you don’t have a lot of time or need to build up to that point.

“Some physical activity is better than none,” he said. “If you miss a day or a week, don’t worry about it. What matters most is a person’s activity cumulatively over an extended period of time.”

Diaz’s efforts helped her drop nearly 70 pounds in two years, reaching 187 pounds from a high of 255.

Now 42, her story is inspiring others: Many of her coworkers have joined the exercise class she teaches, and she regularly posts pictures of herself working out on the Go Red Get Fit Facebook page to motivate other heart patients.

“It took me two years to lose the weight and it was rough,” Diaz said. “I know how difficult and scary it can be having heart complications, but we can’t give up. When you have a real reason [to stay healthy], you just go for it.”