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The little-known heart risk Bob Harper wants people to know about

by Bob Harper / / Source: TODAY

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It's been nearly a year since fitness expert Bob Harper suffered a sudden heart attack — a shock to him, his fans and even doctors. But Harper survived, and since then he's turned his life around, adopting a new, gentler approach to his workouts and diet.

Harper has since learned he has a hereditary condition involving high levels of lipoprotein (a) in his blood, a particle that contributes to plaque in the arteries and blood clots, and can increase the risk of heart attacks. He explains why it's important for people to know about this little-known condition, which often affects people in otherwise great shape — and what else he's learned since the day that changed his life.

I've learned a lot about my strengths in the past year. I was always that workout guy, the fitness guy you could come to for advice. I had to learn a lot about who I am if I don't have all the things I thought defined me. That's been really interesting. It's been a wake-up call for me.

The biggest change? The team of doctors I now have, and the medicine I have to take on a daily basis. They're keeping me strong. They're lowering my risk for having another heart attack. When I found out that after having a heart attack, I was more likely to have another within a year, I was willing to do whatever it took.

My diet is now much more balanced. Before it was high protein, high fat. It's not like that at all anymore. My exercises have had to change completely. I do a lot more yoga. But what I'm really doing now is not relying on those high-intensity workouts anymore. On days I don't work out, I don't get stressed. Before my heart attack, I was in the gym every day. If I wasn't, I wasn't happy.

I did not know this condition that I was predisposed to. I'd never heard about it. (Editor's note: Dr. Warren Wexelman, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, explained that most doctors don't test patients' lipoprotein (a) levels, although he encourages them to do so.)

I would have physicals, but I didn't really know the details of my health as much as I should have. I think that people go their doctors and they get their cholesterol checked but they don't know about this. You hear a lot about the symptoms leading up to a heart attack — numbness, chest pain — I didn't experience any of those things. I went into the gym and went down immediately.

Make sure you really know your health from the inside out. It's important that you go to your doctor and really get checked out. I encourage people to know what is going on with their family history. I think it's really important to take the time. You owe it to yourself. You owe it to your friends and family and the people who love you.

After surviving a heart attack, it doesn't mean that you can't go back to the way it used to be for you. I believe that you get can your strength again. It's almost like — I don't want to say it's a blessing, because I would never wish a heart attack on anyone — but people who have had heart attacks really do learn so much about themselves. You learn about your resilience. You learn that your heart can get strong again. I didn't know that in the very beginning. I thought I was going to be half of who I was.

Now I'm super aware of what's going on in my body throughout the day. If I feel dizzy in any way, it's a red flag for me. If anything is going wrong, or if anything doesn't feel right, I talk to my doctors. It's them reassuring me, telling me I'm fine, I'm taking my medicine, I'm doing as I'm told. That, to me, is what's so important.

As told to Rheana Murray

February is Heart Health Month. Harper spoke to TODAY Health on behalf of the Survivors Have Heart campaign and his partnership with AstraZeneca.

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