February is heart month, and it is a perfect opportunity to talk about our heart health! While this fact isn’t fun to talk about, it is more likely that you will die of heart disease than anything else. Heart disease kills more Americans than cancer, lung disease, and any accident-related injury combined.
While there is a genetic component of heart disease (approximately 11%), we can control the majority of our health with the lifestyle choices that we make. The incredible news is that we have so much control over our cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, fitness level, health and heart disease risk.
It can be hard to get the facts straight. Let’s discuss seven myths regarding heart health, and seven things that we can do to improve our heart health:
Myth 1: “Heart disease doesn’t run in my family, so I don’t need to worry.”
While there is a genetic component of heart disease, your daily lifestyle choices have much more of an impact on your risk for cardiovascular disease. Your family may or may not have great habits like exercising, eating healthy, getting adequate sleep, not smoking, and avoiding alcohol, and managing stress in healthy ways. Regardless of what they do, your actions control your health outcomes. Being diligent now will make a big difference in the long run.
Myth 2: “The only type of heart disease that really matters is a heart attack, everything else is fairly mild.”
Cardiovascular disease includes a broad group of diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels. This includes stroke, coronary artery disease, peripheral vascular disease, heart failure, cardiac arrest, heart attack, and valvular (heart valve) disease. Many of these conditions are life threatening and can largely be avoided.
Myth 3: “More exercise is always better.”
Did you know that the Centers for Disease Control recommends 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week plus muscle strengthening exercises for the large muscle groups at least 2 days of the week? This is the bare minimum quantity of exercise that we should get to prevent disease.
We can get additional performance or weight loss benefits when we add more exercise into our week. While having enough exercise is important, more exercise is not always better. Pushing hard every day of the week doesn’t give your body time to repair and rebuild. Instead of 7 days a week, aim for 5-6 days of the week. Give yourself one day of rest in the week to repair and relax, guilt-free.
Myth 4: “After having a heart attack, you should avoid exercise.”
Exercise is so important at all ages. The important factor is choosing the appropriate type, duration, and intensity. Exercise is important to rebuild strength, endurance, stability, mobility, and coordination that is often lost after a heart attack. Depending on your goals, your physician may refer you to cardiac rehab after a heart attack. If you would like to improve, I encourage you to go!
Myth 5: “Smoke and environmental pollutants (like cleaners and candle wax) only harm the lungs.”
Harsh chemical cleaners, candle wax, air fresheners, and cigarette smoke can significantly harm the cells that line the inside of your blood vessels. These cells are called the endothelium and they largely control the health of your blood vessels. Over time these can stiffen the vessels and lead to heart disease.
Myth 6: “As long as I am below the blood pressure limit of 140/90 I’m okay.”
This year the blood pressure guidelines for hypertension (high blood pressure) were updated from the American College of Cardiology. The new upper limit is 130/80, but to have healthy blood pressure, we want to see 120/80 or less!
Myth 7: “Cardiac Rehab is only for very sick people”
Cardiac rehab is ideal for adults of all ages who would like to increase strength, endurance, increase energy, and feel better. If you’ve recently had a heart attack, heart failure, stent placement, angina (chest pain), valve replacement, or transplant, your health insurance may cover your cardiac rehab. Most people lose weight, gain strength, stop smoking, sleep better, feel significantly better, and manage their medications better. It is an excellent place to work on your health in a safe environment, and connect with others who are going through a similar experience.
What Should We do to Care For Our Heart?
1. Exercise Regularly
We need to consistently exercise, including strength training for the large muscle groups (minimum of 2 times each week) and cardiovascular exercise (at least 150 minutes each week). How is your cardiovascular fitness? Cardiovascular exercise helps remove harmful LDL cholesterol and increase helpful HDL cholesterol in the body. Over time, exercise lowers blood pressure and lowers resting heart rate. Exercise is one of the most important things you can do to improve your heart health.
2. Eat a Healthy Diet
Eat a diet that is high in vegetables and fruits, including whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy (never hydrogenated) fats. Fried foods (like donuts, chicken nuggets, fried chicken, French fries, etc.) are tempting, but they are not worth the damage that they cause. It is common for people to think that they will just burn it off later, but no amount of exercise can undo a bad diet.
Aim to include more plants by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, nuts, legumes and seeds. Try eating some meals without meat, “meatless Monday” is a fun reminder each week.
3. Reach and Maintain a Healthy Body Fat
We need to keep our body fat in a healthy range, regardless of body weight. The scale doesn’t show how much body fat you have under your skin and surrounding your organs. Excess body fat causes your heart to work harder and increases the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Aim to exercise regularly including strength training. Strength training helps to increase resting metabolism, which makes it easier to lose body fat. Avoid mindless eating and instead, eat smaller portions of nutrient-rich foods.
4. Breathe Fresh Air
Take a walk outside and breathe fresh air. Don’t smoke or inhale toxic chemicals from cleaning or air-freshening products. I think we know that we shouldn’t smoke, but it isn’t always that simple. If you are trying to quit, get help. It is incredibly hard to quit by yourself, so use all the support you can get!
5. Know Your Numbers: Blood Pressure and Blood Sugar
Keep your blood pressure at or below 120/80mmHg at rest. In addition to blood pressure checks and other heart-health screenings, you should have a fasting blood glucose test by the time you are 45 years old. This test is a simple blood test (often done with a finger prick) that will check the amount of sugar in your blood. Diabetes is a high risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and often does not have symptoms from the outside.
6. Get Great Sleep
If you have to choose between more sleep or exercise, choose sleep. If you consistently struggle with quality sleep, consider getting a sleep test to look for signs of sleep apnea.
7. Relax and Connect
Managing stress in healthy ways is extremely important for cardiovascular health. Having a lot of stress isn’t the problem, it is how you manage the stress that is critical. Long-term stress that isn’t well managed causes an increase in heart rate and blood pressure and over time it can damage your blood vessels, and harm your DNA.
Connect with the people who are meaningful to you. It is easy to disconnect and withdraw from friendships, but research shows us the importance of maintaining meaningful relationships with your friends, spouse, and pets.
Your heart is truly beautiful! All of the tissues in our body rely on our cardiovascular system, and it is so important that we take care of it every day. You can do hard things!