Alicia Boughton dreamed of climbing mountains. But an unhealthy diet and couch potato habits kept her from it. That is, until an exercise and healthy eating program helped her to change her life.

The bad habits were ones she developed growing up.

“Healthy food wasn’t part of the conversation,” Boughton said. “It was fast food and pasta and eating every last bite on your plate.”

Years of bad eating habits took a toll throughout her 20s, as her weight climbed to 267 pounds on her 5-foot-3 frame. Boughton also had acid reflux, and found herself feeling sick each morning.

With a family history of heart disease, including high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes, Boughton’s doctor urged her to lose weight and change her diet.

“I knew I needed to make changes, but I just couldn’t make myself do it,” she said.

In February 2012, Boughton was one of a dozen women selected for the Go Red BetterU Challenge offered by the American Heart Association in Albany, New York.

Alicia Boughton (top center) with other Go Red BetterU Challenge participants in 2012.

Alicia Boughton (top center) with other Go Red BetterU Challenge participants in 2012.

The 12-week heart-health makeover provided participants with training sessions at a local gym, healthy cooking demonstrations and educational sessions on lifestyle factors to maintain healthy blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels.

Boughton began working out three times a week for about an hour, adding more as she built stamina, in addition to having weekly one-on-one sessions with a personal trainer to do weight training. On weekends, she started trying short, easy hikes in the area.

The AHA recommends adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week.

Boughton also learned how to make her favorite dishes healthier – for example, using Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. By the end of the program, Boughton had lost 40 pounds and no longer woke up feeling sick each morning.

“I learned I can accomplish my goals and live a healthy life,” Boughton said.

Boughton, now 31, stuck with the heart-healthy diet and exercise regimen and has lost another 50 pounds, pushing herself on longer, more rigorous weekend hikes.

She added more fruits and vegetables to her diet and focuses on lean meats, taking time to prepare a week’s worth of meals each Sunday.

“I prep all my veggies and cook my chicken so I’m ready for each day,” she said.

Her hard work paid off. Last November, Boughton became an “Adirondack 46er,” a special designation for people who have climbed the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondack Mountains.

Alicia Boughton

Alicia Boughton at the top of Mount Marcy, the tallest mountain in New York.

“I have so much more energy and a better attitude now,” she said.

Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, affecting a third of all women. Although genetics and family history can have an impact, 80 percent of cardiac events are preventable through education and lifestyle changes.

Boughton now shares her story with other women, serving as a mentor to new BetterU program participants.

“I’ll never go back to my old habits,” she said.

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Photos courtesy of Alicia Boughton