South Charlotte

Heart-healthy lifestyle changes bring rewards

Ballantyne resident Ann Watkins always had a reason for why she felt tired: I worked a long day, I didn't get much sleep last night, I ran a lot of errands.

She never thought there was anything wrong with her diet.

Then one day in 2009, her doctor warned her that if she didn't change her diet, she would have bigger problems than constant fatigue.

"It was really devastating when my doctor diagnosed me with high blood pressure at 52, because my father - who is deceased - was diagnosed with hypertension when he was 51," she said. "I knew I would have to do everything I possible could to reverse it."

Through diet and exercise, Watkins lost 75 pounds within a year. Last year, the American Heart Association presented its Lifestyle Change Award to her.

On Sept. 17, Watkins will be one of hundreds participating in the Greater Charlotte Heart Walk to raise money for heart disease and stroke education and research.

Residents can still register online for the Heart Walk at

Studies have shown that adults might gain up to two hours of life expectancy for every hour of regular, vigorous physical activity.

This month's event is one of the American Heart Association's top fundraisers for the year.

Watkins said she never thought she had time for planning healthy meals and exercising, because she never made the time.

During mornings, she would often rush through the McDonald's drive-through before heading downtown to work as an insurance claims adjuster.

By mid-morning, she was standing in front of the snack machine, searching for her next energy boost after her last sugar crash.

"It's a continuous cycle. I was constantly eating on the run," she said. "At dinner I would eat a healthy meal, but by then I had already eaten enough calories for two days."

Everything changed when she was diagnosed with high-blood pressure.

Knowing she had a family history of diabetes, stroke and other weight-related diseases, Watkins decided to make a major lifestyle change.

She started eating more fruits and vegetables, ate three well-rounded meals a day and started exercising regularly.

Withdrawals from sugar and caffeine were perhaps the hardest part, she said.

"The first couple of weeks, I had excruciating headaches. It was unbelievable," she said.

But all of that became worthwhile a couple of weeks later.

"I just felt so much better," she said. "I could make it through the day and not be hungry."

Watkins said she encourages others to make a healthy lifestyle change as a sort of preventative measure, before they're faced with the kind of major health issue that she was forced to address.

"It's never too late to change your lifestyle to become heart-healthy. You'll have a better quality of life and live longer," she said. "Before I changed my lifestyle, I would feel so tired and sluggish. Now I'm like a puppy jumping for a bone."