How to Improve Heart Health
As we dive further into the new year and continue working on those resolutions to lead healthier lives, one important topic to discuss is heart health. Heart health is crucial for so many obvious reasons, yet many Americans do not know enough about it or how to improve it. February is recognized as Heart Health month, so there’s no better time to educate ourselves on such a significant issue!
Did you know that cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death globally? According to the World Health Organization, approximately 1 in 3 deaths world-wide are related to diseases of the heart. What’s even more astounding is that the majority of these diseases, and subsequent deaths, are entirely preventable. How so, you may ask? Well, by understanding how the heart affects the rest of the body, and learning about the risk factors that can lead to these diseases, we can transform our lives for the better and take charge of our overall health.
One of the most fundamental steps to improving heart health is learning about the major cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors. A risk factor can be defined as a behavior or condition that makes you more susceptible to developing a certain disease. Research has shown that “more than 95% of those who die from heart disease have at least one major risk factor” (NIH). It’s important to acknowledge that just because you may have some of these risk factors, they’re not a death sentence. You can change your lifestyle and habits for the better and decrease your risk. It’s also important to acknowledge there are some risk factors that cannot be changed. For example, one major CVD risk factor is family history. According to the NIH, “if your father or brother had a heart attack before age 55, or if your mother or sister had one before age 65, you are more likely to get heart disease.” While this may be unfortunate to hear, it’s far more important to be educated on these risk factors to make more responsible life choices for a healthier future. Other CVD risk factors are entirely dependent on your lifestyle, such as being a smoker, being physically inactive, or having high blood pressure, cholesterol, or diabetes. Other factors that affect your heart health include stress, alcohol consumption, and taking certain medications. Cutting smoking out of your life entirely is one of the most obvious ways to decrease your risk of developing heart disease, as well as other diseases like lung cancer. However, to negate those other risk factors, it’s vital to make changes to your diet, and begin to add consistent physical activity into your daily life. Luckily, it’s easier than you think, and your changes don’t have to be incredibly drastic! In fact, by getting the ideas of “diet” and “exercise” out of your head and by altering your mindset to be more focused on changing your lifestyle for the greater good of your heart and overall health, you set yourself for better success than if you were to do a complete 180 and try to change your entire life overnight. It’s not practical, it’s not sustainable, nor is it beneficial to your mental health.
Before starting a new diet or exercise regimen, it’s absolutely crucial to talk with your doctor first. Not only can your doctor help steer you in the right direction, they can perform the proper tests and give you concrete data that assesses your risk for developing certain diseases. They can measure your weight, take your blood pressure, and gather a complete family history. They can do blood tests that will measure your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, as well as your blood glucose levels, so you know if you are at risk of developing hypertension, high cholesterol, or diabetes. They can best explain to you what all of your numbers are, what they mean, what they should be, and how you can change them. Most importantly, they can put you on a safe, structured, and supervised program that is uniquely designed for you and your goals!
Important Lifestyle Changes to Improve Heart Health
While consulting your doctor is a vital step for improving all aspects of your overall health, it’s important to acknowledge that there are some very obvious changes you can make to your lifestyle to improve your heart health. For example, eating more fruits and vegetables and less junk food is a great place to start. While we all know how stressful and time-constrained our lives have become, resorting to drive-thrus shouldn’t be the answer. Fast food isn’t detrimental to our health if we consume it in moderation, but it’s important to limit portion sizes and frequency. When at the grocery store, reach for whole-grains and naturally sweetened items, rather than refined white breads and sugary snacks. Watch your salt intake and don’t be afraid to add some leafy greens into your meals! Unless your doctor has said so, there’s usually no need to cut out certain things like salt, sugar, fat, or dairy entirely. By simply consuming less of these, and by adding more color to your diet little by little, you can make significant changes to your diet that are easier to stick to and will have a lasting impact on your life!
With healthier eating should come the adoption of more physical activity as well. The two go hand in hand. However, you don’t need to train to be a marathon runner or a professional powerlifter to be a physically healthy individual. Rather, by taking small steps like adding a walk to your weekend plans or taking the stairs at work you can increase your heart rate enough to make it work and become stronger. Most organizations, including the CDC, the American Heart Association, the National Institute of Health, and the World Health Organization recommend that adults get a minimum of 30 minutes of structured exercise on most or all days of the week to significantly decrease their risk of having developing heart disease. Following this guideline will also decrease your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, and subsequently decrease the risk of developing the conditions that lead to heart disease, like obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. Again, you don’t have to go out and run a 5k or lift heavy weights all day. All you need to do is elevate your heart rate for at least 30 minutes a day. That can be done by something as simple as walking a few blocks down the street or strolling through the mall. You can take your pets to the park and play or dance around your living room while you clean the house. Stop making excusing and saying “I’ll start working out tomorrow” because something else will always come up to divert you once again. Simply put, if you make more time to prioritize your heart’s health, your heart will in turn make more time on this earth for you to enjoy. More time to spend with family. More time to get your education and live out your dream career. More time to become the best you you can be!
It’s time to take charge and start living a healthier life. Your heart, and the rest of your body for that matter, will thank you down the road. Educate yourself. Know the risk factors that lead to heart disease. Talk with your doctor so you know where you fall on the spectrum and how you can decrease your risk. Get outside and enjoy all that mother nature has to offer. Or stay inside and break a sweat dancing around like no one’s watching. Discover a new hobby that is good for the mind, body, and soul. Stop hitting up the drive-thru every time you’re in a time crunch. Add color to your diet and try to cook at home more often. Heart health doesn’t have to be complicated. Chances are you know the basics! Being healthy can be fun if you choose to shift your perspective a little bit. A healthier today leads to a healthier tomorrow, and a healthier tomorrow leads to an entire lifetime of possibilities. Make the change, for yourself and for the lives of those around you. Don’t be another statistic!
For more information, visit heart.org and make an appointment to talk with your doctor.
Cary Costa PT