By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Laila Ali will be honored Tuesday night in New York City with a Red Dress Award.

Laila Ali will be honored Tuesday night in New York City with a Red Dress Award. (Photo courtesy of Allen Cooley)

A decade removed from her championship boxing career, Laila Ali is back in the ring. Only now she’s using her passion and dedication to take on a much more formidable foe: heart disease.

Just as she did in her boxing career – and just as her legendary father Muhammad Ali did for decades – Ali has been racking up the victories. She’s helped numerous women understand that heart disease is their deadliest opponent and encouraged them to embrace better health.

“So many women are suffering from heart disease and heart problems and a lot of it is because of lifestyle choices,” said Ali, now a TV personality, cookbook author and health advocate.

More than one in three women live with some form of cardiovascular disease, which includes heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke. But studies show 80 percent of cardiovascular disease is preventable.

Ali is among a handful of advocates, nurses and physicians being honored Tuesday night at the 14th annual Red Dress Awards hosted by Woman’s Day in New York City. Actress Jane Lynch will host the awards, which will feature award-winning musician Melissa Etheridge.

“In everything she does, Laila embodies the spirit of a true champion,” said American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown. “She is an inspiration to all women, and a mighty force for all of us in the fight against heart disease.”

Ali encourages many women to start slowly. Just as many boxers start their fights slowly by feeling out their opponents in the early rounds, women should know they can’t just come out swinging as hard as they can.

Ali recommends starting by setting simple goals, even if it’s exercising 10 minutes a day or eating a salad a day. “You’re not going to change and be perfect overnight,” she said.

“I try to focus on living a healthy lifestyle to take care of everything,” Ali said. “I don’t think to myself, ‘I want to make sure my heart is healthy so I’m going to work out.’ I just think I’m going to work out because it has so many benefits, from physical to mental, spiritual.

“Everybody has a different motivation. Getting sick because I didn’t take care of myself is what I’m afraid of. I never want to fail myself.”

Following her father into boxing is what thrust his daughter into the public eye. She finished with a 24-0 record when she retired in 2007.

“I think everything I’m doing now stems from me being an athlete and what I learned through boxing,” she said. That included running, exercising, eating well and being mentally and physically strong, she said.

In addition to numerous TV appearances over the years, Ali now produces the Laila Ali Lifestyle blog and weekly podcast, appears on the current season of NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” and is working on a new cookbook with recipes for healthy comfort food.

Of all her accomplishments, Ali is most proud of staying true to her beliefs, including passing up big dollar endorsements for products she wouldn’t use herself or that could harm someone.

One cause she didn’t hesitate to support was women and heart disease, as a nine-year spokesperson for the AHA and its Go Red For Women events across the country.

“I understand the importance of exercise and eating clean and not smoking and going to the doctor, getting your check-ups and finding balance in your life so you can reduce stress,” she said. “Not that I have it all figured out. Trust me, I have my challenges at finding balance.”

Ali and husband, Curtis Conway, a former NFL football player, are parents to Curtis Jr., 8, and Sydney, 5. Most days, Ali said she prepares lunches for the kids and makes dinner.

However, Ali doesn’t get down on herself if she gets too busy to cook – or occasionally puts on a few extra pounds.

“I have to remind myself that I’m doing the right thing 80 percent of the time,” she said. “I know I’m going to get it off: I would never give up on myself.”