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Iron Man contender uses exercise to beat heart disease odds

Exercise helps Iron Man contender face heart disease with confidence.

Jack Baum was only 2 years old when his father died of a heart attack. His father was only in his 30s – one of a long line of family members who passed away at an early age. 

Baum was determined to break that family tradition.

He began exercising in his 20s as a way to control his blood pressure, eventually training for marathons and then triathlons. He completed his first Iron Man in 1993 and has done 12 more since then, qualifying for the world championship three times.

“I decided that since I couldn’t do anything about my genetics, I might as well just do my best with what I have,” Baum says.

“My workouts are meditative to me,” adds the 61-year-old. “Everyone needs a way to recharge; for me, it’s exercise.”

But there were occasional mornings when he just didn’t feel right – he wasn’t up to his usual routine. Concerned, Baum saw several cardiologists. While one physician suggested that he might have an irregular heartbeat, the rest all declared that he had the heart of an 18-year-old.

Finally, Baum consulted with UT Southwestern cardiologist and sports medicine expert Benjamin Levine, M.D. After a thorough evaluation, Levine determined that Baum had atrial fibrillation, or Afib, an irregular heartbeat that can lead to complications such as heart attack or stroke.

The diagnosis explained Baum’s occasional dips in energy, but Levine’s testing also showed that Baum’s consistent workouts were key to keeping his heart rhythm stabilized. So Levine prescribed training protocols that make sure Baum prepares appropriately and recovers adequately after extreme races. That, plus a low dose of blood pressure medication, is the only treatment Baum has needed.

“I think that balance is the key,” says Baum, who fits his rigorous training schedule around his other passions, which include being a husband, father, and grandfather and serving as CEO of the successful tech company Ziosk. “I never really think about the Afib because Dr. Levine monitors me so carefully. That gives me confidence.”

Though his family heritage might suggest otherwise, Baum says he’s one of the lucky ones. “According to Dr. Levine, I’m going to die someday,” he says, “but it won’t be from a heart attack.”

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