Breakaway From Heart Disease

For Joe Montana and his teammates, hopping on a bike wasn’t always a good thing. Pedaling on the sidelines often signaled a problem, with the player trying to stay loose, avoid cramps, or keep warm.

Not anymore. “These bikes are good for you,” the Hall of Fame quarterback says with a smile.

Montana and his wife Jennifer are helping to roll out a campaign to promote heart health through diet, exercise and knowing your family history, with a new emphasis on an old way of getting around: your bicycle.

It’s called Breakaway From Heart Disease, a partnership of the American Heart Association’s CycleNation movement, the biotechnology company Amgen and bikemaker Schwinn. With a big bike race, smaller local events and online activities, the campaign hopes “just to educate people about heart disease and to get them active through cycling,” Joe says. “We’re happy to be a part of that.”

For the Montanas, the issue hits home. Joe, who’s 59, has been diagnosed with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, two prime risk factors of heart disease. At exactly that age, Jennifer’s father had quadruple bypass surgery.

Just a year later, she says, “He passed away from a massive heart attack. So it does become personal and it’s important to us to educate our children. They’re getting it from both sides with Joe’s history and all. So we’re really happy to partner up to bring awareness to everybody that there are ways to prevent heart disease in their families.”

The advice isn’t new, but always bears repeating. Heart disease is preventable 80 percent of the time, says Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a New York cardiologist and AHA spokesperson active in AHA’s Go Red For Women movement.

“Preventing heart disease is all about making choices in how you eat and how you move, and it’s a forever deal,” says the cardiologist, author of Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart Healthy Life.

“It’s really about dealing with the risk factors of heart disease,“ she says. “High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, sedentary lifestyle and also knowing your family history. But making those choices of lifestyle and diet are lifetime choices.”

And even superbly fit, lifelong athletes need to make those choices.

“That’s part of the message we’re trying to get out there,” Joe says. “This disease is not particular. It attacks anyone, and sometimes at early ages, earlier than we all think. It was earlier than I thought I would be diagnosed with two of the risk factors.”

The result? “I had to change,” he says. “Obviously I’m like a lot of people in this country., Not only do I like to eat things that are bad for me, I like to eat a lot of it, so those things had to change…the thing that was successful for me was not to cut things out immediately but to cut down the amount of food I was eating, and then you start realizing you don’t need that much food. You start making healthier decisions as you go along.”

As for exercise, the pounding that his body took from decades of football meant he had to focus on “low-impact to no-impact exercises. So I spend a lot of time on bikes.”

The Breakaway From Heart Disease campaign kicks off on May 15 with the Amgen Tour of California, an eight-day professional cycling race from San Diego to Sacramento for men, and a four-day race from South Lake Tahoe to Sacramento for women. Each day will feature public festivals at every stop, and the full schedule can be found at

The AHA joins the action with a new program called CycleNation, a series of indoor and outdoor cycling events, with some already scheduled for Atlanta, Cincinnati, Dallas and Denver in the fall, aimed at promoting awareness and raising money for heart research. Details are at

But riders don’t need to head to California or wait for the fall to get involved. At, they’ll find information, videos and other resources to sustain a heart-healthy lifestyle – and how bikes can be part of it.

They can also submit a photo of themselves on a bike, holding up a sign showing how many miles they pledge to pedal. Each snapshot earns a chance to win Schwinn bikes and a $1 contribution from Amgen to the AHA.

Good luck snagging a new bike, Dr. Steinbaum says, “But we encourage everybody to go there more for their education and to learn how to combat the disease and change their habits to be more heart-healthy.”

While you’re on the bike helping your heart, Joe says, don’t forget about your head: “absolutely” wear a helmet.

“And try not to fall,” Jennifer adds.