By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Photo of those involved with Go Red Get Fit

Growing up Latina, Ary Nuñez says heart disease was the “elephant in the room.”

“I remember always getting teased for being too skinny and not having a butt,” she said.

Now, Nuñez, along with fellow celebrity fitness trainers Scott Parker and Lita Lewis, will challenge women to get fit for life and protect their heart health.

The American Heart Association’s new Go Red Get Fit program launches Friday. The program is the latest Go Red For Women initiative and is sponsored by Macy’s, which has helped to raise more than $55 million for the cause since 2004.

The first challenge — called “Take Steps and Drop Sweets” —  begins in March. The goal is to walk 10,000 steps a day and limit added sugars to 24 grams per day. The other three challenges will build on those ideas, increasing cardiovascular activity, limiting sodium and saturated fats.

The initiative will also raise awareness for other lifestyle factors that can protect heart health, such as limiting sugary beverages, increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables and eliminating tobacco use.

It also will targetmulticultural communities, which have increased risks for heart disease.

Among African-American women ages 20 and older, 48.9 percent have cardiovascular disease, yet only 20 percent believe they are at risk. And Hispanic women are likely to develop heart disease 10 years earlier than Caucasian women.

Obesity was common throughout Nuñez’s extended family and Dominican community, and rich food was regularly on the menu, even as heart attacks cost several relatives their lives.

It wasn’t until she became a professional athlete, trainer and group fitness instructor that she realized how pervasive heart disease was in her family, and the impact lifestyle changes could have.

“Heart disease is the No. 1 killer, but we can take preventative measures that will make a difference,” she said.

Nuñez loved being active, starting at age 5 with karate and dance. She began to dance professionally at age 15, and had earned black belts in three different martial arts by the time she was 20.

“I never considered it exercise,” Nuñez said. “To me, it was about having fun and moving.”

Nuñez, who launched her own fitness company in 1998, says her goal is to “build better people.”

“When you feel good, you can do better at everything,” she said.

Heart disease has always been top of mind for Parker, who was 6 years old when he learned how to take blood pressure readings.

Like many in the African-American community, Parker’s father struggled with severe hypertension for decades, a condition that sent him to the hospital dozens of times.

Parker, who is based in Los Angeles, helps his clients make small changes that can translate into better fitness and nutrition, whether that’s making healthy changes to recipes or identifying exercise that resonates.

“We’ve gotten accustomed to quick fixes and what one exercise can give me the great butt, or what diet can make me lose weight fast, but if you’ve got to get away from that type of thinking,” he said. “If you live a total health lifestyle, everything else will take care of itself.”

Parker, who has been a trainer since 1992, said one challenge empowering women in the African-American and Hispanic communities is a lack of information.

Only 43 percent of African -American women and 44 percent of Hispanic women know that heart disease is their greatest health risk, compared with 60 percent of Caucasian women.

“A lot of people don’t know what to do and assume it will be too difficult,” Parker said. “I want to show people how even minor changes can make a big help.”

Parker encourages clients to find a way to get physical activity that they enjoy, so that they’ll be more motivated to keep it up. If you don’t like running, try cycling, or even salsa dancing, he said.

Cultivating support, either through workout buddies or online is also important.

“The more we can feel we’re not alone in this battle the more successful, more healthy and happy you’ll be,” he said.

Exercise was therapy for Lewis, as she tried to get over a bad relationship and find an outlet for stress.

“I had spiraled down so much that I lost myself,” she said. “I grew up as an athlete and knew working out made me feel good, so I used the gym to help my body, but also to give myself a clear mental state.”

Ultimately, the Brooklyn, New York,-based trainer found her passion as she shared her gym therapy across social media, developing a global following. Lewis quit her day job as an executive assistant and began working as a personal trainer fulltime in 2014.

Now she hosts fitness boot camps around the country, works with individual clients, operates online training programs and has her own apparel line.

Her focus? Total health.

“Just because one carries a god-like body with ripped abs doesn’t’ mean he or she is healthy,” Lewis said. “Without health, we are not our best selves. It trickles down to everything we do in life.”