PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL WILLIAMS
On January 31st of last year, day 31 of my 31 Days of Fitness challenge, I worked out with Bob Harper for the grand finale. Bob is one of the most famous trainers and personalities in the fitness industry, having starred on “The Biggest Loser” for 17 seasons. The workout did not disappoint. Bob lived up to his all-star billing, pushing my body beyond what I thought it was capable of in a high intensity circuit workout that kicked my butt after 1 round. Relentless but nurturing he kept me going for 3 more — dropping my time with each round.
12 days later Bob suffered a massive heart attack on the floor of that very same gym.
Bob calls it “the heart attack heard round the world”. It was the top story on every entertainment program, morning television, and the evening news. The last thing you ever expect is for one of the world’s most famous trainers to have a heart attack. Bob had what is known as a “widow maker”, which usually has about a 6% rate of survival. He credits the doctors who happened to be at the gym that day. and the AED (defibrillator) on the premises, for saving his life. He has since said he won’t ever work out at a gym that doesn’t have one.
When Bob woke up from a coma in the hospital two days later, he had no recollection of what had happened, nor anything about that day. He confessed recently he didn’t remember our workout or how we had met, as his short term memory was affected by the heart attack. Since then, however, he has been making steady progress, documenting on social media what has been both a physical and emotional journey back to health. Confronting his mortality and the realization that despite his physical fitness he could not avoid his family history of heart disease has been extremely challenging. His mother died of a heart attack and his priorities have shifted dramatically. He doesn’t sweat the small stuff, and he doesn’t sweat the big stuff either.
I chatted with Bob last week after a SoulCycle class to find out how he’s doing and how his approach to health and fitness, both his own and others, has changed over the last few months. What follows is a two-part interview with excerpts from our conversations pre and post-heart attack – along with the pictures from our workout last January.
Borrowing from gymnastics, Crossfit and HIIT training, this circuit workout went from the Woodway Curve (a self propelled treadmill); to Parallette Shoot Thrus (parallel bars on the floor with leg swings front and back); to the Assault Airbike bike; to Thrusters (barbell squats with an overhead press); to Sprawlers (burpees without the push-up); to Kettlebell swings. Now repeat that 3 times.
PART 1: JANUARY 31, 2016 AT BRICK CROSSFIT
STYLE OF SPORT: That workout was truly befitting of a grand finale! Was this a typical Body by Bob workout?
Bob Harper: I’ve been in the business for 30 years and done almost every workout imaginable. You name it, I’ve tried it. My workouts incorporate all the different things I’ve done and what I like about it is you challenge the body in so many different directions. When I get someone in a gym I have a lot more equipment and I like having all these different tools to work with. I didn’t want you doing what you always do. I wanted challenge your mind too. One of the things Crossfit taught me was to be constantly varied, so you don’t just specialize in one thing.
SOS: I felt that with you — like you were looking at me, and looking around at all the equipment like tools in the toolshed, and figuring out which ones to use on me.
BH: I think for you, being as athletic as you are, you owe it to your body to not let it get in a rut doing the same thing. That’s where injuries happen. People talk about how certain workouts can be dangerous, but I think repetitive movements are what is so dangerous, when you get used to doing only one thing.
SOS: I run and I spin. I occasionally mix some HIIT in there, but not much else.
BH: Weight training is what I would tell you to need to put into your regimen. Weight training is the fountain of youth. It creates bone density and lean muscle mass on the body. Body fat doesn’t like living with lean muscle mass, so the lean muscle mass eats the fat. A lot of women get nervous about weight training because they don’t want to get big and bulky.
SOS: I’m that way. You see these burly girls at Crossfit. It’s fine for them, but it’s just not the body I want.
BH: Crossfit is not for everyone. You see these big strong girls, super jacked up, but you have to remember those girls are machines. They look like that because they are pushing themselves. We’re not looking to push that crazy weight here. You were doing a 25 lb. bar today and that was great. That was plenty.
SOS: And it was hard!
BH: I know your body now. I’ve trained you. I’ve seen what it’s capable of and how naturally athletic you are. You owe it to your body to really push it in different directions. Don’t just run, don’t just SoulCyle. And listen, I love me some SoulCycle. I get it. I see those SoulCycle people that ride everyday and they’re like, ‘Let me show you how its done. Tap it back.’
BH: I want to take that person and say try something totally different. Like for me it’s gymnastics. That was my weakest thing. I could press all day long but pulling was super hard. So what did I do? I got a gymnastics coach. I find things I do poorly to get better at. I don’t have any interest in just showing off or being like “Oh, I’m such a master of this.’ I’m the one that will put themselves in a really challenging situation where I’m just completely humble. When I first started doing Crossfit it was super humbling. I remember driving to the gym and at every stop sign being like, ‘Turn around and go home. It’s too hard.’ It can be emasculating in the beginning. You’re around all these people that are just killing it.
Photographer, Michael Williams chimes in: Or sometimes you’ve got a 95 lb. chick kicking your ass!
BH: Or you’ve got an 80-year-old woman doing deadlifts. I’m just like there you go. That’s what I want to be doing. I want to be that 80-year-old woman doing deadlifts.
CL I do too. It’s what keeps you young. Here we all are in our 50’s and I feel better now than ever.
BH: We’re redefining what our 50s are.
Despite his physical fitness and healthy lifestyle, 12 days later Bob Harper suffered a massive heart attack at age 51.
PART 2: AUGUST 12, 2017 AT SOULCYCLE AFTER STACEY GRIFFITH’S CLASS
SOS: Bob it’s so great to see you doing so well! I remember we talked a lot last time about both of us being in our 50s and feeling great in our 50s. It’s too huge of a question to ask how your life has changed, but just in terms of health and wellness, and your approach to fitness, how has that changed?
BH: Everything about what I’m doing after the heart attack has changed. My outlook – yes, I’m much more appreciative than I’ve ever been. I realize that life can be taken away from you so quickly and to appreciate every moment that you’re here. You hear people say that. It’s one thing to say it and a whole other to experience.
SOS: What do you remember about that day?
BH: I don’t remember anything about it. My friends who I worked out with that morning said I was complaining a lot about being dizzy. They said I just wasn’t myself. Midway through the workout I lay down on the floor and immediately went into cardiac arrest. I died on that floor at the gym that day. I was in cardiac arrest for 9 minutes. It was because of the people in the gym who really took action that I’m here today.
SOS: Has it changed the way you train your clients?
BH: It’s interesting because I have not been training people at all. I was out on the road this week, shooting a new project I hope to get off the ground, and I ended up working out some of the crew. It was the first time. It felt really good, but I felt also really vulnerable. My perspective has completely changed. When I train people – you know because you’ve worked with me – I take it very seriously. I’m very passionate about it.
SOS: You dialed into me so quickly. I really felt your confidence in my abilities.
BH: I’ve always been in the field of helping people. It’s always been my thing to get people who are overweight to lose weight. But my life has taken such a different turn, and I feel like it’s really about getting people to wake up in their life right now. My mission is so much bigger because I’ve been given another chance. I’m changing things and I feel really good about it.
SOS: In terms of your own training, how has that changed?
BH: My friends that have known me for the longest time are the ones who should answer this because they’ve seen a real shift in me. Working out has been something that has always defined me. I’m that guy. But there is a gentler side now. In terms of days where I don’t get a chance to workout, I just don’t workout. I don’t care.
SOS: Maybe that’s a good thing.
BH: I think so. It feels good. I’m doing a lot of yoga now. I’m doing these classes at SoulCycle. I’m still doing Crossfit but I’m keeping it very light. “Crossfit Light” I call it. I’m very aware. I have a heart monitor. I used it during my cardiac rehab when I was with the doctors for 36 sessions for 3 months with a monitor stuck to me 3 days a week. I got very aware of my heart rate.
SOS: Working out has been your job, your career, the thing for which you are so well known. That’s got to be really challenging.
BH: My career is starting to shift.
SOS: I’ve watched you on The Today Show a few times since the heart attack. You’re still helping people but maybe you’re more relatable now?
BH: Let me tell you, you hit the nail on the head. That’s the main note I was getting from so many people at The Today Show, Rachel Ray and all the shows that I do all the time. Those producers were like, ‘There was part of you that was a little intimidating. You were very rigid. You were so dialed into that way.’ I’m just different now. There’s a softer side that’s really coming out. I’m really glad because I’m going around and talking to people that have had horrific things happen to them and I know life is meant to be treasured.
SOS: That’s wonderful Bob and a perfect note to end on. And from all of us… we’re so happy you’re doing well!