You only have one heart. You have two lungs, two kidneys, and even a regenerative liver, but only one heart. Though it is the most important organ in the body, we tend to take it for granted until it stops working the way it should. Chest pain, or worse, a heart attack, soon follows. Thus, keeping your heart in top shape should be your highest priority. Even if you haven’t taken the best care of your heart up to now, this is a great time to start, American Heart Month. Here are 5 tips to start you on your way to a healthy heart.
Maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight is a major contributor to heart disease, especially around the abdomen. Extra fat around the abdomen is not only dangerous for your heart, but other organs as well. A man’s risk of heart disease is increased if his waist measures greater than 40 inches (35 inches for women). In general, the higher the scale goes the greater risk you have. You don’t have to lose a lot of weight – just losing 5%-10% of your weight will improve your cholesterol level, lower your blood pressure and help maintain normal blood glucose levels, thereby decreasing your risk of heart disease. So, if you weigh 250 pounds, just 25 pounds will make your heart healthier!
Up your intake of healthy foods. Red meat (which can be high in saturated fat and cholesterol), added sugars, and excess salt can all lead to heart disease. Some saturated fat is okay (around 7% of your daily overall food intake), but too much can contribute to plaque buildup in arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis. Left untreated, this plaque can clog arteries, impairing blood flow, which can cause a heart attack. Excess sugars and salt are other culprits of heart disease. Try to go vegetarian for two days per week – don’t eat anything with a mother or a face. Choose foods that have less than 9 grams of sugar per serving, and aim to limit your salt intake to no more than 2300 mg or about 1 teaspoon of salt per day. Your heart will love you for it! And of course, increase your intake of fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains for a boost in vitamins, minerals, and fiber! Fiber not only fills your tummy, but studies have shown that fibrous foods (fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes) aids in the prevention of heart disease and several types of cancers! On average, women need 25g fiber per day and men need 38g fiber per day.
Exercise. Sitting is the new smoking. A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. If you are spending too much time in front of the screen (TV, computer, tablets, phones), or sitting more than you stand, you are at risk for heart disease. Contrary to what fad diets promote, you really need to work out 45-60 minutes of moderate intensity exercise most days of the week. What counts as moderate intensity, you ask? If you can sing easily as you work out, you’re not working hard enough. Remember, exercising doesn’t only mean getting a membership at your local gym. From running, dancing, to gardening, find out what works best for you and just keep moving! Purchase an App or fitness device like FitBit to track your movement. They are really effective because they keep you focused.
Downgrade your stress level. All the healthy eating and exercising in the world won’t matter if you live in a constant state of stress. Although the exact connection between chronic stress and heart disease is not clear, chronic stress can affect physical health. Stress stimulates hormones in your body to prepare for the “fight or flight” response, which can override normal body cues, such as hunger, satiety, and digestion. Chronic stress can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to fatigue and disease. It can lead to unhealthy lifestyle choices – overeating, mindless eating, meal skipping, drinking, and smoking. Some healthy ways to decrease your stress and anxiety levels include social support from loved ones, journaling, breathing exercises, meditating, and physical activity. If you feel like you are going at a constant 70mph, take a deep breath, slow down and de-stress. Do this daily!
Keep your doctor’s appointment. Schedule a yearly check-up and a physical. You need to know your numbers – cholesterol, triglycerides, blood glucose (fasting and A1c) and blood pressure. Even vitamin D. Don’t wait; ignorance is not bliss. And don’t tell yourself that you ‘just won’t claim it’. I see too many patients that waited too long to address medical issues or ‘didn’t claim it’, and are now suffering the consequences. Know your medical status and get working on it now to improve it.
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