Healthy You - Every Day

A Heart Health Message on Two Wheels

Easton Twilight Criterium rider had aortic aneurysm repaired in 2022

Canadian cyclist Cody McKay won’t look much different from other riders in the Easton Twilight Criterium on Memorial Day weekend.

He’ll have a slick racing skinsuit, helmet and cycling shades, and a top-of-the-line bicycle. But under his jersey is a reminder of a difference, of an off-road health challenge he conquered – the scar in the middle of his chest from his open-heart surgery in Ottawa, Canada in December 2022 to repair an ascending aortic aneurysm.

Did you know?

A criterium is a mass start, multi-lap event contested on a closed course where laps are typically a mile or less and include 4-6 corners. Source: USA Cycling

McKay and his medical team decided on surgery because of the potential the aneurysm could grow and possibly rupture and because he wanted to pursue his cycling career without worrying about the aortic aneurysm, a bulging or ballooning in a weak spot in the aorta, the body’s largest blood vessel.

He’s fully recovered from that surgery and back to racing, but the experience prompted him to become a heart-health ambassador, providing feedback to others about his own experience in hopes it will help others faced with serious cardiac problems. He founded Project Heart, an online resource featuring information about his and others’ heart health experiences. He wants to share the non-clinical human side of his experience, the stress, anxiety and other challenges he faced. He wants others to know they’re not alone.

“A heart-related challenge was not on the radar for me,” McKay, now 32, says of his diagnosis in 2021 after initially seeking care for a presumed lung infection. “It was a mental disconnect.”

Before his aortic aneurysm was discovered, McKay says he never really thought much about heart health. There was no heart disease history in his family. “It’s societal because in most cases we don’t think of heart health unless it’s a heart attack, poor life choices, or because you’re at that later stage of life. Outside of that, you’re not thinking of it. My role can be to talk about the human experience, particularly as a younger individual, and as a highly competitive athlete.”

“Whether you’re a professional athlete or not, it’s important to be in tune with your heart during exercise.” Dan Makowski, DO

Aside from his cycling, spreading the word about good heart health is also a priority. “All of us, including competitive athletes, could stand to learn more about our heart and how it works. Building a proactive awareness and understanding of the heart, and helping individuals make informed, heart-healthy training decisions is one of Project Heart’s pillars,” he says.

The May 25 criterium, sponsored by Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN), is a lightning-fast race in Easton’s downtown area on a 0.71-mile course with six turns. USA Cycling-licensed riders as well as internationally UCI-licensed riders such as McKay will be vying to take the top spot in the professional men’s race, which will feature 100 athletes. The best-finishing Pennsylvanian athlete will be crowned the state champion.

Importance of regular exercise for heart health

Sports cardiologist Dan Makowski, DO, with Lehigh Valley Heart and Vascular Institute, says whether you ride a bike or do something else to stay fit, establishing a regular exercise routine is important to help achieve long-term cardiovascular benefits.

“The American College of Cardiology recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity and two days of muscle-strengthening activity per week,” Dr. Makowski says. “Whether you’re a professional athlete or not, it’s important to be in tune with your heart during exercise.”

Dr. Makowski says any symptoms of chest pain, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, or extra heart beats should be evaluated by a cardiologist.

“It’s important to be your own advocate when it comes to your heart health,” Dr. Makowski says. “Know your risk factors, family history, and if you develop any symptoms, have them checked out right away.”

Lehigh Valley Heart and Vascular Institute

Lehigh Valley Heart and Vascular Institute

Preventing and treating heart disease

The Heart and Vascular Institute is comprised of several multidisciplinary teams working together to treat complex conditions of the heart.

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