Habits for a Healthier Heart

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Heart disease is extremely prevalent in the United States, with the southern states topping the list with the highest prevalence rates. We are more likely to be hospitalized or die from heart disease than anything else, so taking care of our heart should be at the top of our priority list. There are some factors (like genetics) that we can’t modify, and it is easy to focus on the non-modifiable risk factors. The truth is that our habits, rather than our heredity, play an enormous factor in our health and wellness. 

The heart is the pump that supplies our entire body with the blood that we need to sustain life. The blood vessels serve as the transporters and the exchange site for oxygen, carbon dioxide, hormones, and other molecules. When the vessels are healthy, they expand and contract millions of times throughout the day to direct our blood to the areas of the body that need it most. When we are physically active, the blood is directed towards the working muscles, and away from the digestive tract and kidneys.

Vessels that are damaged have vessel walls that are thick, hard, and non-compliant, which means that they can’t respond appropriately by dilating and contracting. The thin inner layer of the vessels is called the endothelium. This single layer of cells is in direct contact with the blood and helps to control the health of the vessels. The endothelium should be smooth and adaptable. We know that trouble is coming when the endothelium is sticky like Velcro and unable to create a molecule, nitric oxide, to help the rest of the vessel dilate. One of the ways that we can tell if the vessels aren’t working properly is through a blood pressure reading indicting high blood pressure at rest. It is one of the first signs of dysfunction and predictive of heart disease.

How do we optimize the health of our heart and vessels? Consistency is more important than having the one time “perfect” workout or “perfect” meal. It is never too late to change our habits and improve our health and function.

Healthy Heart Behaviors

  • Reach and maintain a healthy body weight. The two key components of maintaining a healthy body weight are 1) healthy eating, which is eating the proper nutrients in the proper quantities, and 2) getting the proper amount of exercise, which includes both aerobic and resistance training. The key to exercise is finding the type of exercise that you can tolerate or enjoy, and do it regularly. The key to nutrition is consuming the right portions. Most of us habitually overeat.
  • Eat plants every day. This doesn’t mean that we need to eat plants exclusively, but we need to include a broad range of vegetables and fruits. Nuts contain excellent healthy fats and can promote heart health. Plants are widely underutilized in preventing heart disease. L-arginine is an amino acid that can help the endothelium create the molecule nitric oxide
  • that helps with proper dilations and contraction. You can find L-arginine in foods like turkey, chicken, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, spirulina, and lentils.
  • Exercise for a minimum of 150 minutes per week and add in resistance training 2 or more days of the week. Exercise should be a non-negotiable part of each day, 5 days a week. Find ways to make exercise fun. Having an exercise buddy can help you stay accountable, and it can make exercise more fun!
  • Reduce negative stress levels. Negative stress levels can put unnecessary stress on the heart and vessels, which can contribute to heart disease. Let it go and shake it off.
  • Check your blood pressure often. Normal values should be 120/80 mmHg. The top number represents the highest pressure on your vessel wall at rest. Thick or hard vessel walls contribute to high blood pressure (called hypertension). The cut off for hypertension at rest is >140 systolic or >90 diastolic, confirmed on more than 2 occasions.

Habits That We Should Avoid

  • Avoid smoking or environmental pollutants like harsh cleaning solutions.
  • Avoid regular soda pop or alcohol consumption.
  • Avoid candy or sugar on a daily basis.
  • Avoid recreational drugs.

When Should I Expect Changes?
Immediately! While some factors like body weight take time to see noticeable changes, healthy behavior changes our physiology immediately. Quitting smoking improves the function of the lung within 20 minutes, with even better benefits seen over time. Exercising has immediate benefits on the circulation, circulating hormones, and endothelium, with even better benefits seen over time. Muscular strength, cardiovascular endurance, physical balance, improved body composition, healthier immune system, reduced anxiety and depression are just a few of the benefits that we experience due to habitual exercise. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see immediate weight loss; it takes time. Be consistent and you will see positive changes in your weight. 

Consistently performing the 5 heart healthy habits can produce immediate benefits and can help to prevent heart disease. Be patient with yourself as you are making changes. Add one change in each week, and in 5 weeks, you can expect an improvement in your cardiovascular health. Take care of your heart, and it will be your friend for life.

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