Several times a week, 65-year-old Charles A. Negri dons his exercise togs, straps on a Walkman and retires to the basement to conduct a concerto or two.

Many of the great conductors lived long lives -- all that good exercise waving their arms around, joked the Arlington resident, who suffered the first of his two heart attacks 10 years ago.

"I bought myself a treadmill and I have my Walkman and I have my Strauss waltzes and I do the conducting while I'm walking," said the retired Department of Labor employee.

Negri, one of 67 million Americans with cardiovascular disease, is also among the 13,000 volunteers helping the Northern Virginia Council of the American Heart Association.

The council, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, could not survive without volunteers who want to teach others how to avoid a first-hand lesson in the horrors of heart disease, said Jodie Klein, the group's communications director.

"Everybody has been touched by heart disease -- someone's parents, their grandparents," said Klein, explaining why so many people offer their time.

Many of the volunteers, having turned to the council's support groups after suffering heart attacks themselves, want to return the favor, Klein said.

"You just can't go back to work or just go home," Klein said in an interview last week. "You have to give a little something back to the community."

The Northern Virginia Council, one of dozens of regional organizations supporting the statewide Virginia Affiliate of the American Heart Association, raised more than $1 million for its fiscal year ending June 1989.

"This year it's not going to be that much," Klein said. "The economy is not as good, and charity is one of the first things to go."

Although the Northern Virginia Council hoped to raise $1.4 million in donations, it had not quite reached the $1 million mark as of last week -- the final week of its fiscal year 1990.

According to a chart prepared by the Virginia Affiliate, almost 30 percent of the funds raised in the state are donated to medical research. Klein said that nationally the Heart Association, founded in 1924, pumped $813 million into heart-related research during the past 40 years.

But fund-raising is just part of the association's function.

The Northern Virginia Council spends almost half its funds on public education and community service programs, distributing literature, creating educational displays, and sending speakers to area schools, offices, health-care facilities and town halls.

Children are in many ways the most important audience for the Heart Association's message, Klein said, year in Northern Virginia. They need to learn the consequences of high-fat diets, smoking and lack of exercise, she said.

"We're using positive peer pressure to get kids to convince friends to quit smoking and to keep kids who don't smoke from starting," Klein said. "Smoking is the number one preventable cause of death in the country. We feel if we can reach them at this age, maybe they'll never start."

Negri said he once smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and felt lucky that he quit a few years before his first heart attack.

"I'm pretty much convinced that had I not stopped I would not have survived the first attack," Negri said.

Like many who suffer heart attacks, Negri had no notion that he was in danger. Routine checkups showed him to be in good health and his family had no history of heart disease.

When he was awakened by chest pains early in the morning 10 years ago, he initially thought he was having severe indigestion. But he said it took only a moment to realize what was happening.

"Only after the pain subsided did I begin to realize for the first time that I was mortal," Negri said. "I think we all have in the back of our minds that we have a private contract with God that everyone else is going to go and we're not."

Negri said that when he was released from the hospital he felt physically stable, but psychologically tentative.

The council's Heart to Heart meetings helped put him back on his feet emotionally.

The Heart to Heart program, bringing together individuals who have suffered heart disease or whose family has been touched by cardiovascular ailments, "is really a support group, and it was a tremendous help to me psychologically in the recovery period," Negri said.

"You go through this very traumatic experience and you're afraid of everything," he said.

"Every time you feel a little twinge you think you're going to die."

Negri, descended from a family of professional cooks, said he also had to alter his diet after the first attack.

"I changed the diet, limiting the intake of fats and increasing the intake of chicken and fish . . . . It's surprising with a little ingenuity and two or three cookbooks what you can do."

He said after a few years he grew somewhat complacent about his diet and exercise regimen.

Then, early one morning two years ago, he was awakened by the sharp chest pains of his second angina attack.

Today Negri is back on schedule, feeling strong after bypass surgery and pretending to conduct classical music on his treadmill in the basement.

After having helped the Northern Virginia Council create a formal speakers bureau several years ago, he remains one of its more active representatives.

His favorite audience: elementary school children. "I get these youngsters at an early age and can impress upon them the importance of a healthy lifestyle," he said.

Information on the Northern Virginia Council of the American Heart Association can be requested by writing the council at 7203 Poplar St., Annandale, Va. 22003.