February is a big month. Not only do we have the Super Bowl, and Valentine’s Day, but also Mardi Gras, and the start of Lent. It’s a month full of sweets and calorie-heavy events (good thing it’s a short month!). February is also dedicated to spotlighting heart health. It’s a great time to check in on your health after the New Year when motivation for your resolutions begins to fade.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women across most ethnicities in the United States. The sobering statistic is that 1 out of every 7 deaths in the US is caused by heart disease. Certain lifestyle choices put you at higher risk for developing heart disease including not being physically active, poor eating habits, smoking, and excessive alcohol intake. What’s the good news you ask? Changes you make in your life can dramatically reduce your risk of heart disease. Small changes can lead to lasting results. Read on for 5 things to start doing daily to have a positive impact on your heart and your health.
Fats are all the rage these days. Saturated fat seems to be up for debate on their healthfulness except for when it comes to heart health. Saturated fat isn’t as debatable for a heart healthy diet; it’s still not recommended. Instead opt for healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that are known to be heart healthy. It can be as simply as adding heart healthy foods like walnuts or ground flaxseed to your breakfast and committing to enjoying fatty fish like salmon for dinner at least 3 nights a week. Don’t over think it. If you aren’t too confident in the kitchen, keep some heart healthy grab and go choices like nuts stocked, they don’t require any cooking skills at all.
Pretty much, more is better. As Americans we still don’t eat enough fiber on a daily basis. Fiber can help lower cholesterol by helping your body get rid of the unwanted cholesterol as the fiber is digested. It’s not hard to figure, the day gets away from you and it’s tough to plan out every meal and snack around all the things we should and should not eat. I’ll admit, even as a dietitian, some days I don’t eat enough heart healthy foods like fruits and veggies or whole grains. My goal is always to have one piece of fruit or vegetable at every meal and snack (like this: banana with breakfast, apple with morning snack, salad with lunch, carrots with afternoon snack, roasted vegetables with dinner, and fruit with dessert). I also try to keep the pantry stocked with whole grains so it’s a no brainer for me to eat them on a daily basis. My whole grain staples are: whole wheat cereal, oats, 100% whole wheat bread, rice, barley, and whole wheat couscous. You can use the ShopWell app in the grocery store to find higher fiber alternatives to your favorite foods.
Easier said than done right? Stress does a lot of things to the body and most of them aren’t good things. Stress can make you moody, tired, and many people reach for food when stressed which leads to overeating or pick up unhealthy habits like smoking. The effects of stress on the body weigh heavy on the heart. In order to begin to stress less, take stock of what is causing you stress in your life and determine what factors you can control. Then begin to make small changes to lessen the stress. Maybe find something that helps you decompress whether it is the current trend of adult coloring books, yoga, meditation, or just taking 15 minutes to do something for you (for example read a book, take a walk, or close your eyes and listen to some music).
Sleep is key to staying healthy, fighting weight gain and colds, and achieving younger looking skin. It’s also your largest organ and first lines of defense against pretty much everything. Some people can function on less than 5 hours of sleep but they are in the minority. It can be challenging to get to bed earlier every night (I know I struggle with this every night) but maybe aim to get to bed 15 minutes earlier than normal and go from there to catch more Zzzz’s. It’s also helpful to unplug from your smartphones and tablets before going to bed and maybe read a book or magazine to get your brain primed for sleep. I also read recently that people who take a power nap (think a 10-20 minute light sleep nap during the day) during the day tend to have improved mood and focus. Just something to think about!
Along with sleep, we don’t prioritize this enough. Life gets busy; I get it. I’ll be honest there are some days when all of a sudden it’s 9 pm and I haven’t done any intentional exercise for the day. Exercise, especially cardio, is important for the heart (no surprises here!). Aim to do some form of cardio exercise done most days of the week. You don’t need to have a sweat session to enjoy the benefits of exercise. Just doing something that gets the heart rate up slightly should do the trick. I know squeezing one more thing into the day can seem like a chore. Here are a few ideas for getting some extra exercise in:
- Dance party in your kitchen (partners, kids, roommates, and pets are welcome)
- Walk around the block (maybe a few times to up the cardio)
- Walk up and down the stairs at work at each bathroom break
- Get off the subway or bus one stop early and walk the rest of the way into work
- Take a walk during your lunch break. Be sure to invite your coworkers
National Heart Health Month is a good time to take stock of your personal habits and see how much you are doing to keep your ‘ticker’ strong and healthy. If you have a lot of room for improvement, start small, pick one area of your life you feel you can successfully make a positive change and do it. Over time, you can work on other habits to make sure that you are doing everything you can to keep your heart, and yourself, happy.