By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Shanna Keeler with her husband J.D. and their children (from left) Lucy, Lily, John and Andy.

Shanna Keeler with husband J.D. and their children (from left) Lucy, Lily, John and Andy.

Shanna Keeler didn’t think her eating habits were that bad. After all, she ate what everyone else did: the pizza, burgers and soda after her kids’ sports games and “whatever sounded good” when eating out with friends.

“I didn’t really think about it,” said the 45-year-old mother of four from Ohio.

Then a routine physical exam in December 2013 revealed her blood pressure was at a “crisis” level of 200/110 mmHg. (Normal blood pressure is 120/80, and a reading of 140/90 indicates high blood pressure.)

“I was walking around at risk for a heart attack or stroke at any given moment,” Keeler wrote in an article for Woman’s Day. She was one of four participants in the magazine’s 2014 Live Longer and Stronger Challenge.

Shanna Keeler with husband J.D. at the 2015 Woman's Day Red Dress Awards.

Shanna Keeler with husband J.D. at the 2015 Woman’s Day Red Dress Awards.

Doctors confirmed the reading wasn’t a fluke and Keeler was put on high blood pressure medication.

She bumped up her exercise regimen, but soon found that she couldn’t out-exercise a bad diet. That would mean not only her diet would have to change, but her family’s diet would have to change too — an overhaul Keeler admits was long overdue.

She started small: no more adding sugar or salt. Unsweetened tea was her first baby step. Next came swapping out beef for turkey and canned vegetables for fresh ones. Her kids raved about dinner one night when Keeler had secretly made her traditional meatloaf with ground turkey rather than ground beef.

Zucchini noodles, on the other hand, didn’t get the same reception. But the family found a healthy compromise. “Half of us have zucchini pasta, the other half gets whole-wheat pasta,” Keeler said.

The family was on board with whatever Keeler threw at them, even when it came to eliminating soda from the household.

“The kids were aware of my blood pressure and the need to get it under control,” Keeler said. “They were receptive to the challenge to change their eating habits.”

The family even started a garden. “I would talk to the kids about recipes and ways to make them healthier. We tried a lot of new things,” she said.

Poolside entertaining wasn’t immune from a healthy swap. Instead of brownies, the Keeler family would serve cherry tomatoes from their garden and carrots.

The family’s new eating habits also influenced those calorie-laden sports team dinners. Pizza deliveries were replaced with meals at a restaurant, where everyone has a choice.

Keeler has stuck to the lifestyle changes, and she has her blood pressure to prove it: Her readings are now in the normal range. She no longer has to check her blood pressure every day from home. And she no longer needs medication.

The changes have likely added years to Keeler’s life. Starting at age 50, life expectancy is five years longer for people with normal blood pressure compared to those with high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association.

Keeler hopes those extra years will be spent spoiling grandchildren and traveling with her family. “I want to do everything possible not to miss that,” she said.

“The lifestyle change is status quo for us now,” Keeler said. “We developed so many good habits, and the goal wasn’t just for me, but to teach me the right changes to help my kids grow up healthier.”

Keeler only has one goal left. “I’m still on a quest to get them to like guacamole.”

Some changes that Keeler made can be replicated. She cautions that families need to remember that small changes can bring results.

“I needed to remember slow and steady,” Keeler said. “I didn’t get there overnight.”

Some other advice from Keeler includes:

  • Drink lots of water. “I keep rubber bands on my water bottle to represent how many bottles I need to drink in a day. I remove a band each time I empty the bottle.”
  • Take at least 10,000 steps a day. Make exercise a family activity. “The whole family is running now,” Keeler said.
  • Talk about the heart-healthy changes you are making. “If you tell everyone you’re eating healthy, you feel accountable — like they’re watching everything you eat.”
  • Order first when eating out with a group. “If I wait to order last, I’ll be influenced by others’ choices,” Keeler said. “But if I order first, it sets the tone.”

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Photos courtesy of Shanna Keeler