Karate after heart bypass surgery: Chris's story

Fitness enthusiast Chris Whittam tells Rachael Healy how his love of karate and the determination it creates helped him recover from heart bypass surgery.

Chris Whittam doing karate

There’s always something new to learn in karate,” says Chris Whittam. “It’s like peeling an onion – you keep finding more layers.”

Chris, 60, first discovered karate 20 years ago. At the time, he was a divorced dad with two young daughters and wanted a fun activity for the three of them to do each weekend. “None of us had done it before, so we were learning together,” he says.

As Olivia and Siobhan became teenagers, they lost interest, but Chris was hooked. He continued attending Sei-Do-Kan karate club every Saturday in Bramhall, Cheshire, earning higher and higher gradings, and eventually starting to teach younger club members.

You can do solo activities at your own pace, within your own capacity, just pushing yourself gently

When Chris ended up in hospital with a suspected heart attack in January 2016, his thoughts turned to karate. “One of the first questions I asked on the ward was how long I’d be out of action,” he says. “I was very concerned about how long it would be until I got back into training again.”

Chris stayed in hospital overnight for tests, which confirmed he’d had a heart attack. He had an angiogram procedure and expected to receive stents and medication. But he soon discovered he needed a triple heart bypass. “I was dumbfounded,” Chris says. “I kept fit, never smoked, barely drank and ate well.”

He was transferred to Wythenshawe Hospital, where he waited for his operation. “Everybody I had to deal with was fabulous,” says Chris. “From the receptionist, right through to the surgeons – I can’t praise them highly enough.”

After the operation, he didn’t feel as bad as expected and was keen to get home and start his recovery. “I wanted to get back to the level of fitness I was at just before the heart attack,” Chris says.

Chris Whittam with his karate belts

Chris with his karate belts

Returning to karate after surgery

The week after coming home from hospital, Chris went along to Saturday karate club. “I was restrained enough just to watch though!” he says. “A few weeks later I put my karate gi [uniform] on again. The chief instructor kept a watchful eye on me.”

He began joining in with parts of the class, slowly and gently. “I couldn’t strain my chest too much, because it has to heal for eight to 12 weeks,” Chris says. “A lot of karate is very technical, therefore I took the opportunity to perfect my technique.”

Chris also attended an eight-week cardiac rehabilitation course at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport. “It was an opportunity for me to get fitter, so I went to every single one of them,” he says. “Everybody helps each other and gets stuck in.”

Once his breastbone had healed, Chris restarted the regular home workouts he’d been doing before his heart attack. These included kettlebell exercises and morning yoga sessions. “You can do yoga at various levels and it can just be a very gentle stretch, so I picked that up fairly quickly after the operation,” he says. “I credit karate, yoga and kettlebells with helping me hugely. They make a big difference. I think the beauty with all three is they’re solo activities, so you can do it at your own pace, within your own capacity, just pushing yourself gently.”

Soon, Chris set himself a challenge: complete 100 press-ups in a row. He built up to it over four weeks and, on the final day, met his goal. “I wanted to test my fitness and determination, and see how much I’d progressed since my heart attack,” he explains.

Chris Whittam using a kettlebell at home

As well as twice-weekly karate sessions, Chris does yoga and kettlebell workouts at home.

Getting back on the motorbike

Chris waited a little longer before returning to another of his passions. “The hospital said I couldn’t ride my motorbike until my chest was fully healed, so I didn’t get on it for three months,” he says. “I was desperate to start riding again. I felt wobbly for the first few miles, but soon got back into it.”

Chris went back to work after four months of recovery, on a phased return, and was soon commuting in on his motorbike. He’s now working full time, after being promoted to Deputy Managing Director.

To stick at karate for that long you need a certain mental attitude and determination: ‘I’ll get through this, I can do this’

Regaining his previous level of fitness did take a little longer than Chris expected. “I was more tired than I thought I would’ve been,” he explains. “I slept a lot during the day in those first few months. It took 12 months to get back to full fitness and I’m still progressing.”

But even on days when his energy was low, Chris never lost focus. “To stick at karate for that long you need a certain mental attitude and determination: ‘I’ll get through this, I can do this’,” he says. “That really helped me. And my wife Clare always encouraged me.”

Chris continues to develop his karate skills and now teaches his own class every Wednesday. He feels that life is back to normal. “Go to the rehabilitation classes, and share your thoughts and concerns with people going through the same things as you,” he says. “Be determined, because you can do it.”

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