Give Your Heart A Break

By Claire Henley

Butt Out
Whether you smoke socially or because it’s your go-to stress reliever, you’re causing harm to your heart. Studies show that smoking increases your risk of coronary artery disease by 2 to 4 times.

“Smoking damages the arteries and can lead to plaque buildup,” explains Dr. Stephen Rohn, chief medical officer at Hamilton Health Care System and a cardiologist with Hamilton Cardiology Associates. “Every time you smoke your arteries tense up.”

Many have switched to electronic cigarettes because they contain fewer damaging chemicals than tobacco products. However, e-cigarettes still contain nicotine, which is toxic to the heart. The occasional cigar isn’t benign either – some premium cigars contain the tobacco equivalent of an entire pack of cigarettes.

Call it a Night
We know sleep rejuvenates our bodies for the day to come. But did you know that when you’re asleep, your heart rate and blood pressure go down? This gives your heart good, restoring rest.

According to Dr. Hady Lichaa, an interventional cardiologist with Tennova Cardiology, sleep is also critical for brain detoxification. “This is significant because the brain and nervous system are intricately connected to the heart and cardiovascular system.”

Know Your Numbers
Start by keeping your blood pressure in check. High blood pressure can damage artery walls and cause scar tissue, making it more difficult for blood and oxygen to travel to and from the heart. As a result, the heart pumps harder and wears out quicker.
An optimal reading for blood pressure is 120/70. By having your blood pressure checked regularly—at least once every two years—you can monitor if it is too high and if you need to take action.

Knowing your numbers applies to blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglycerides, too. Learning the ideal levels for each and scheduling regular physical exams are easy ways to ensure your heart’s health.

“Everyone should be familiar with the cholesterol terms HDL, the good cholesterol, and LDL, the bad cholesterol,” says Dr. Nathan Hartgrove, a physician with Parkridge Medical Group – Diagnostic Center. “Tracking those can help you determine which changes to make. For example, you can lower LDL with a heart-healthy diet and cholesterol medications, but exercise is key to raising HDL.”

Heart Health Wisdom { Rome wasn’t built in a day. }
“Your doctor can write a prescription, but the real answer to improving your heart health lies in changing your lifestyle. Studies show fad diets and exercise routines just aren’t sustainable. It’s far better to stay within the bounds of who you are and to make little changes that make the most sense for you. If you’ve tried to make healthy changes and failed, reapproach them in a new way. Instead of going out and buying exercise equipment, maybe this time you can start playing in a racquetball league or going on a daily walk with the dog. Find activities you enjoy and healthy foods you actually like, and begin to incorporate these into your normal routine.”

Take a Walk in the Park
Regular exercise is great not only because it can help you maintain a healthy weight, but because it reduces the risk of heart disease. You don’t have to do an extreme workout to reap the rewards. Simply taking a 30-minute walk five days a week will suffice.

Other activities, like gardening and cleaning the house, count as exercise, too. The key is consistency. Just like your body, your heart will grow stronger regardless of the exercise you choose.

Lose a Few Inches
Since weight gain can lead to higher risk of heart disease, simple actions like calculating your Body Mass Index (BMI) or measuring your waist can help determine your heart disease risk. For example, a BMI of 25 or higher indicates a greater chance of heart disease.

Your waist size actually gives you a better insight into your heart’s health than your weight or BMI. Certain heart disease risk factors—like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes—are common among those with a waist of 35 inches or more.

If weight loss seems like a daunting task, take heart. You don’t have to see a dramatic drop on the scale to improve your heart health. “Losing as little as 5 to 10% of your weight can lower your blood pressure and significantly decrease your chance of heart attacks,” says Dr. Lichaa.

Love Your Life
Stress puts a strain on the heart and contributes to cardiovascular disease and, in severe cases, heart attacks. “People who are high-strung or have a very type-A personality tend to run a higher risk of cardiac events,” says Dr. Rohn.

Don’t let stress drag down your heart. Rather, conquer stress by taking time each day to do something you love. Take a bath, read a book, or hang out with some friends. Other stress reducers include exercise, laughter, volunteer work, and a good night’s sleep. Meditating 20 minutes a day, staying positive, listening to music, and taking personal days from work also keep stress in check.

Heart Health Wisdom{ An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. }
“Cardiologists are there to save lives and that feels great, but it’s also a Band-Aid on a wound. The solution is prevention. You don’t want to wait until a major disaster to start taking care of yourself when you can keep it from happening in the first place. In traditional medicine, we are great at treating symptoms and keeping patients alive, but we can’t reverse disease until we go back to emphasizing prevention. I can tell you without hesitation that almost 70% of heart problems are preventable through a healthy diet and active lifestyle.”

Don’t Go it Alone
People who have fewer connections with friends and family develop heart disease more often than people who have a strong social network. One reason could be because those who go it alone are less likely to watch their weight and more likely to be smokers, as they do not have social support holding them accountable.

Another reason is that those who live in social isolation are more likely to be depressed, and depression has a direct correlation with a higher risk of heart disease and heart attacks.

Dr. Hartgrove points to the VIRGO study published in 2014, which analyzed heart disease patients ages 18-55.

“The study looked at various social parameters for each participant – ranging from friendship support to whether they considered themselves social. Those in social isolation were more likely to have increased depression, low quality of life, and higher risk of heart attack

Think Quality, Not Quality
Because your diet determines the well-being of your heart, the quality of the food you eat, as well as the portion sizes, factor into living a heart-healthy life. You want to consume the good fats instead of the bad.

Instead of gorging on grub that’s sugary, fried, buttery, and cheesy, try foods rich in olive oil and nuts, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and seeds to sustain a healthier heart. “If you want to change your diet, limiting fried foods and trying out the Mediterranean diet is a great place to start,” says Dr. Hartgrove.

Take Your Time
Changing your habits and diet to boost a heart-healthy lifestyle may seem like a daunting task, but don’t fret. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your new routine doesn’t have to be either. Start off slow and steady, taking a walk a day and changing your sugar, fat, and overall calorie intake a little at a time. By gradually eating healthier and losing weight slowly, you have a better chance of keeping up the routine than by jumping on today’s trendiest diet.

Heart Health Wisdom
{ Slow and steady wins the race. }
“I understand wanting to make aggressive exercise changes all at once. Many patients want to return to the same fitness level they had when  they were younger. But if you’re trying to run a marathon right away, you’re probably asking your body to do too much. We need to ease back into physical activity. For one, rushing into things can sometimes contribute to a heart attack. But the more likely bad outcome is extra aches, pains, and discouragement. It’s far better to make very realistic goals and take small steps at a time. You’ll avoid asking too much of the heart, and you’ll start off with the best possible attitude for success.”

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