Using Diet and Dancing to Fight Heart Disease


This mother and daughter are using diet and dancing to fight heart disease.

Genetics can play a role in determining who is at the greatest risk for heart disease. But in the case of Lillie Wells and her daughter, Torrye Wells, their family bond has also served as the strongest force in improving their health.

It wasn’t long ago that Lillie, who is 72, started feeling a small, consistent pain in her heart. Soon after, upon returning home from an outing with Torrye, 40, her daughter became alarmed by her mother’s heavy breathing after walking up a single flight of stairs.

“She ran up the stairs and she was panting like a tiger,” Torrye recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what in the world is wrong with you?'”

Lillie, who is the youngest of 14 children, knew that her family had a history of heart problems. So, she made an appointment at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute in Chicago, Illinois. There, she learned that she had an enlarged heart and high blood pressure. Her cardiologist, Kameswari Maganti, MD, who is the medical director of cardiac rehabilitation, put her on medication and explained how she needed to focus on eating better and getting fit. If she didn’t, she was putting her life in danger.

The visit wasn’t just eye-opening for Lillie, it really resonated with Torrye as well. Torrye’s father, who had diabetes, had passed away two years prior from vascular disease. Now, learning about her mother’s problem, she was really worried. “I’m in a direct line to those things,” she said. “I don’t want to be diagnosed.” So, together, both women vowed to make some immediate changes.

Lillie began going to the gym, and, at 72, rekindled her long-standing love for basketball. “You’ve got to try it,” she beams. She also uses the elliptical for an hour at a time and loves the way it makes her feel. “I feel so good when I get off of it. I feel like I can go again, but she won’t let me!” she says, referring to her daughter. Torrye started going to Zumba, and before she knew it, she was at the gym six days a week. Often, the two would go together, taking Zumba classes and supporting one another. For Lillie, dancing was brand-new territory. “When I was growing up, we weren’t allowed to dance, so I never did, but I try now. It works out the thighs and the arms and everything,” she says. “It is so good!” she says. “It makes you feel good all over.”

At the same time, they both began eating better. Lillie cut white bread out of her diet, switching to wheat and limiting herself to a slice a day. She began making her own soups, and baking chicken for dinner every night. She even gave up consuming a few old favorites—buttermilk mixed with half-and-half and slices of homemade cornbread. Torrye started adding more whole grains and fruit into her diet, and really began focusing on portion control. “For lunch, I’m now eating half the portion I used to have,” she says.

Both mother and daughter saw results quickly. In the last year, Lillie’s doctor was able to cut her medications in half. She lost 25 pounds and a lot of inches, going from a size 16 to a size 12. In four months, her goal is to be a size eight. Torrye lost 50 pounds and went from a size 18 to a size 12.

Both women say they feel fantastic. So fantastic that they’ve decided to extend the challenge and get even more family members involved. “Everyone is in agreement that we’re going to start working out together and to lose weight as a family,” says Torrye.

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