The month of February is American Heart Month. Heart disease remains the number one killer of men and women in the United States. However, there is good news, most cases of heart disease are preventable. Your best defense against heart disease is leading a healthy lifestyle. Feeling unsure of where to start? Here are a few tips to help you on your way.
- Quit smoking. The science is pretty undeniable on this one. If you are a smoker, you are at an increased risk for heart attack and stroke. That is because smoking damages the lining of the arteries1. When the lining of our arteries become damaged they begin to build up a sticky plaque. Over time, this plaque becomes hardened and eventually blocks blood flow to the heart1. Quitting smoking is crucial to reducing heart disease risk and improving overall cardiovascular health. Studies show that disease risk decreases as the length of time since quitting increases2. So don’t wait, quit today.
*Need help quitting? Smokefree.gov is a free government resource to help you on your journey to a smoke free lifestyle. https://smokefree.gov/
- Get moving. Exercise comes with an array of heart benefits. It has been shown to decrease inflammation, lower blood pressure, and increase HDL cholesterol3 (the good kind of cholesterol). It also comes with a host of other health benefits, such as improvement in mood, and decreased risk for cancer and type 2 diabetes3. If you are not in the habit of working out regularly, then it is time to get started. Of course it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the thought of adding exercise to your daily routine, but worry not. There is no need to start training for a marathon. Simply get up and get moving in whatever way works best for you. According to the American Heart Association, all it takes is 40 minutes of moderate exercise 3 times a week to improve heart health4. That means that a brisk walking pace is sufficient. If 40 minutes feels like too much, then break it down even further. Working out twice a week is better than not working out at all, and it is a great place to start. As your body begins to reap the benefits of exercise you will quickly become inclined to do more.
- Eat your fruits and veggies. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with plant metabolites called polyphenols. Studies show that increased intake of polyphenol containing foods may help to prevent cardiovascular disease through their anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties5. Fruits and vegetables also contain soluble fiber, which is believed to play a role in reducing LDL cholesterol in the blood stream. Less LDL cholesterol in the blood means less plaque buildup in the arteries. Increasing your fruit and veggie consumption doesn’t have to be difficult. Simply toss a handful of berries onto your oatmeal in the morning, reach for an apple as a mid-morning snack, mix a few chopped veggies into your pasta, or add a small side salad to your sandwich at lunch time. Small changes add up quickly and the benefits will be undeniable.
- Manage stress. Psychological stress is considered to be a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease6. Therefore, managing stress may play an important role in improving heart health and preventing cardiovascular diseases. Stress can be managed using a variety of methods. Some options include meditation, yoga, and physical exercise, but simply taking a little time each day to step away from work and responsibility can be stress relieving in itself. Turning off all technological devices, practicing deep breathing exercises, or partaking in a hobby you enjoy can also do wonders for calming the mind and relieving the body of stress. Often times we move through our day at lightning speed attempting to balance and complete every task on our plate. Making room for a little rest and relaxation throughout the day can do wonders for our physical and mental well-being, and it goes a long way in keeping our hearts healthy and happy.
Living a healthy lifestyle is the best defense against heart disease. Managing stress, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, and quitting smoking are sure fire ways to help you on your way to improved cardiovascular health. A few other important factors include maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and weight. Knowing these crucial numbers and discussing them with your doctor is an important part of being proactive about your health. Remember to always consult with your physician before making dietary or other lifestyle changes (such as increasing physical activity). Every day is an opportunity to do something good for your health and every meal is an opportunity to flood your body with the nutrients it needs to function at its best. Keep in mind that small changes can have a big impact, so don’t overwhelm yourself right out of the gate. Slow and steady wins the race, or in this case allows for a long, happy, heart healthy life.
- Campbell SC, Moffatt RJ, Stamford BA. Smoking and smoking cessation—The relationship between cardiovascular disease and lipoprotein metabolism: A review. Atherosclerosis. 2008;201(2):225-235.
- Chang L-, Loh E-, Tsai Y-, Chiou S-, Chen L-. Clinical benefits of smoking cessation in reducing all-cause and disease-specific mortality among older people in taiwan: A 10-year nationwide retrospective cohort study. European Geriatric Medicine. 2014;5(3):149-154.
- Stuart AG. Exercise as therapy in congenital heart disease — A gamification approach. Prog Pediatr Cardiol. 2014;38(1–2):37-44.
- American Heart Association. (N.D.) New Diet, Exercise Guideline for Heart Health. Retrieved January 31, 2017. https://www.goredforwomen.org/about-heart-disease/heart_disease_research-subcategory/new-diet-exercise-guideline-for-heart-health/
- Li G, Zhu Y, Zhang Y, Lang J, Chen Y, Ling W. Estimated daily flavonoid and stilbene intake from fruits, vegetables, and nuts and associations with lipid profiles in chinese adults. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2013;113(6):786-794.
- Momeni J, Omidi A, Raygan F, Akbari H. The effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on cardiac patients’ blood pressure, perceived stress, and anger: A single-blind randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Society of Hypertension. 2016;10(10):763-771.