As quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, Joe Montana guided his team to four Super Bowl championships in the 1980s, winning a place as one of the greatest football players who ever competed in the sport. An exemplar of grace and poise under pressure, Montana time and again led San Francisco to victory with his late-game heroics, throwing the ball to brilliant receivers like Jerry Rice and John Taylor.
The former field general is now battling a different kind of opponent: high blood pressure. And this one can’t be defeated by dodging tacklers or tossing touchdown passes to Rice and Taylor.
The 49-year-old Hall-of-Famer learned about his hypertension on a visit to the doctor four years ago. Since then, he has improved his eating habits (not easy for this lover of fried food) and is devoted to his exercise routine-something that had slipped after his retirement from pro football.
Since 2003, Montana has teamed up with Harvard-trained cardiologist James Rippe, MD, in a public education campaign to make people more aware of the dangers of hypertension and the steps they can take to combat the problem. Called Take the Pressure Off…With Better Blood Pressure Control, the program is sponsored by Novartis Pharmaceuticals, makers of the anti-hypertensive medication Lotrel. The drug, along with exercise and healthier eating, has helped Montana lower his blood pressure.
Montana is a longtime San Francisco Bay Area resident who currently lives in the wine country of Napa Valley, California. The father of four recently sat down for an interview with ABILITY Magazine’s editor-in-chief Chet Cooper and senior health editor Gillian Friedman, MD.
Chet Cooper: What have you been doing since you retired…from the Lakers, right?
Joe Montana: (laughs) Yeah, I played with Shaq.
Gillian Friedman, MD: (laughs) Okay, what have you been doing since retiring from football?
Montana: I’ve started a little investment business out of my house. I do some real estate entitlement properties I take properties and flip them.
Cooper: Does that hurt your back at all?
Montana: When I flip them? (laughs) No, I try to bend my knees a little!
Friedman: (laughs) Speaking of your knees-especially since exercise is a big part of controlling high blood pressure-how does your knee injury from your football days affect the type of exercise you can do now? Montana: Well, if my knee didn’t bother me I wouldn’t have an exercise issue, because I love basketball. I could play basketball all day long, but my knee just won’t allow me to do it.
Cooper: What do you do for exercise?
Montana: Basically, I go between three exercise machines-the Stairmaster, the stationary bike and the treadmill. With my blood pressure, I’ve really ramped up my exercise routine. I used to exercise once or twice a week, but now I try to get in seven days a week. I don’t just aim for 30 minutes-I try to get a full hour.
Cooper: Has your eating changed since you found out about your high blood pressure?
Montana: Yes, it has, but it’s probably not what everybody imagines. I hate the word diet-we all hate it when someone tells us we’re going to have to diet. I’ve found it works best if I just do things in moderation.
For example, I still like red meat, salt, potato chips and pizza, but I know I can’t eat that stuff every day. During the day I’ll try to eat a pretty healthy diet. For instance. this morning I had Ensure because I don’t like to have a lot for breakfast. Then at lunch I try to stick with something light. My daughter got me started on these vegetarian half-sandwiches-toasted bread stacked with tomatoes, pickles, onions, avocado and then a piece of lettuce on the top.
Friedman: Sounds good-you’re getting me hungry!
Montana: Before, I never thought I could get away with such a light meal, but I’ve found that as long as I’m keeping busy, that’s more than enough food to satisfy me. If I’m idle, though, I have a more difficult time.
At night I allow myself a normal dinner, but then I try not to eat anything else afterward except a protein shake. I started the protein shakes a couple of years ago when I did a bathing suit photo shoot with my wife for Sports Illustrated-they had couples doing it. My wife is in tremendous shape-she’s one of those lucky women who had four kids and looks like she never had any. She’s got a washboard stomach. But I had a lot of work to do! So a bodybuilder friend of mine said, “No matter what you do, don’t ever miss the egg protein shake at night. You can skip other things but don’t miss that because it helps your metabolism.” So that’s about the only thing I’ll have after dinner.
Cooper: What about salt?
Montana: It’s really hard for me not to eat salt. My kids move the salt shaker away from me, so they’ve been a big help.
Friedman: How did you first find out your blood pressure was a problem?
Montana: I was just going in routinely to the doctor. When was younger, my philosophy about the doctor was, If it’s not hurting, then don’t go. But once I turned 40, I figured I ought to go at least once a year just to make sure everything was okay. So I was just going for a routine physical.
Friedman: Had you ever had any elevated blood pressure readings before?
Montana: No, I was always fine. I was just expecting to go in again, quickly check the boxes and get out of there.
Cooper: So how does that happen? What caused the difference in your blood pressure compared to the previous times?
Montana: It’s had to say. Because I’d been going every year to my doctor, when my blood pressure suddenly went really high, her antenna went up. She said, “Let’s just make sure something else isn’t going on,” and we ran some tests. But for most people with high blood pressure there isn’t a clear reason.
Friedman: How bad was your blood pressure?
Montana: Well, it was high enough that my doctor sent me to the cardiologist the same day she examined me. She was pretty serious about it. The follow up tests showed a blockage starting in one of the arteries around my heart, so if my blood pressure had gone unchecked it could have led to a disaster, especially given my family history. My mom had high blood pressure, and her father passed away at the age of 54. But before that appointment I never took my own risk very seriously; I never thought it would happen to me.
Cooper: Well, you’re an athlete. You’re not going to be in bad shape. We don’t usually think of high blood pressure in athletes.
Montana: You’re right. I never thought I would have it-other health problems, maybe, but not hypertension.
Friedman: Looking back, had you experienced any symptoms before you went in?
Montana: No, that’s the scary part. High blood pressure usually doesn’t have symptoms, so I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t gone in that day. I was lucky I found out. That’s one reason it’s been great to be a part of this campaign we can really affect a lot of people.
Cooper: What are you stressing in the campaign?
Montana: It’s really an educational program. We try to motivate people to go in and meet with their doctors, to find out what blood pressure is so they can make changes if they have to.
Friedman: Medical guidelines place healthy blood pressure somewhere around 120/80. Do you find that most people are aware of those numbers?
Montana: A lot of people don’t know very much about it. There are 65 million Americans who are affected by high blood pressure, about one in every three adults. But if I can make the changes that will bring my blood pressure under control, anybody can do it. It’s not easy for me to make changes when it comes to eating and exercise, especially when I’m restricted to nonimpact exercise because of my knee. But it turns out there are some great benefits to these changes in terms of how I feel.
A big key is to work with your doctor. I was surprised when the first medication I took didn’t work. I got a little nervous, but then I found out the majority of people with high blood pressure require more than one medicine. Fortunately, my doctor stayed on top of things and kept checking, because I would have just taken the first medicine, thought I was okay and said, “See you next year.” I would still have been at risk. Then my doctor switched me to Lotrel and my blood pressure came under control very quickly. But what works for me isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone, so it’s important for each person to get on the medication that’s right for them.
Friedman: Do you see a lot of misperceptions about hypertension-like the idea that people can tell when their blood pressure is going up?
Montana: Yeah, I remember saying myself when I was stressed, “Geez, I can feel my blood pressure going sky high.” But that was not really the case, because usually there are no symptoms. They call hypertension the silent killer for a reason.
Friedman: Right. And then some people are afraid to take medications for their blood pressure because they are afraid of side effects. They don’t realize that the long-term consequences of high blood pressure-stroke, heart failure, kidney failure, damage to the eyes-are much worse than the side effects.
Montana: These days there are so many medicines out there that almost everyone can find one with minimal or no side effects. But I think the bigger issue is that people are afraid to say something is wrong with them.
Cooper: Have you taken on any other service projects lately besides this educational campaign?
Montana: We have a family foundation that works with children’s charities in Napa Valley, where we live. Right now we’re helping build homes in the Santa Rosa area for foster families-kids who would otherwise be separated from their siblings because their foster families don’t have room for all the children. Kids in foster care often miss their siblings more than they miss their parents, and it’s important to keep them together. This project will bring in another element-units for grandparents in the same complex. We just broke ground for 18 family homes and nine grandparents’ units.
Cooper: In another arena, I heard through the grapevine that you were a little upset when you weren’t asked to be on the TV show Dancing with the Stars like your former wide receiver, Jerry Rice.
Montana: (laughs) No, I just turned it down-I’m not as dumb as I look!
Friedman: (laughs) You didn’t want to wear one of those lycra suits, like the actor John O’Hurley?
Montana: No! I can’t even imagine doing that!
Friedman: Well, we’ll call in our vote for you, whatever you take on next.
foreword by Paul Sterman
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