When I flip my calendar to February, two things usually come to my mind. One, I’m getting tired of the cold and snowy winter, and two, Valentine’s Day is coming. Now, I don’t know how you feel about this “holiday," but I like it.
Red happens to be my favorite color, and I love seeing all the decorations in stores. I look forward to reading the articles in magazines about celebrating our relationships, and how best to tell those who mean the most to you that you care. And even though baking is not my thing, I find it fun to read the Valentine’s Day recipes and see the heart-shaped cakes and cupcakes in the bakeries.
Regardless of how you feel about Valentine’s Day, hearts are everywhere, and February is also American Heart Month. Although we think of the heart as the vehicle of emotions, that job really belongs to our minds.
The heart’s job is to keep us alive by pumping vital oxygen-enriched blood to every cell of our body, doing all the jobs that keep us functioning.
With such an important role, it’s essential to do all we can to keep our hearts healthy and strong. There is a common misconception that heart attacks only occur in men, but in fact, heart disease afects 6.5 million women.
Many believe that cardiovascular disease has such a strong genetic component, that there is little you can do to prevent the inevitable. Please don’t fall into this faulty thinking. There is an old expression that states: “Genetics loads the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger.”
We cannot underscore the importance of good nutrition and exercise. The heart is a muscle, and the more it works, the stronger it gets. A heart-healthy diet is one filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, low-fat protein, and healthy monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. It happens to be the same diet that is recommended to reduce the risk of so many other diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, high triglycerides and vascular diseases, which of course, all raise your risk of heart disease.
Although exercise and a healthy diet top this list, here are twelve interventions you should embrace to protect your heart. Some will be familiar and serve as a good reminder, and others will surprise you. You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to take the best possible care of yourself. Begin with strengthening the most important muscle in your body, your heart.
Adhere to a consistent exercise program and follow a heart-healthy diet. If you need help, talk to your doctor, hire a personal trainer, and/or enlist the services of a dietitian or certified wellness coach. Do whatever it takes.
Lose excess weight safely, which means slowly. Maintaining a healthy body weight is known to reduce your risk of heart disease. However, crash dieting repeatedly, very-low calories diets (VLCD), cleansings and fasts have all been shown to weaken the immune system and damage heart muscles, thus increasing the threat of developing heart disease.
Develop a robust circle of friends and loved ones and nurture those relationships. Studies have shown that people who lack a strong network of friends and family are at a greater risk of developing and dying from heart disease. If loneliness plagues you, developing good relationships will not only increase your happiness, but will make you healthier. Consider signing up for volunteer work. Take a class that interests you. Meetup.com is a great website that lists interest groups by geographic areas and has so many groups that you are sure to find a new social circle.
Brush, floss and rinse everyday. It’s not just about sweet-smelling breath and pearly whites: Gum disease has been linked to heart problems. Make sure you keep on top of professional cleanings at your dentist’s office twice a year.
Get a good night's sleep. Researchers have found that the chronically sleep-deprived increase their likelihood of developing heart disease. Aim for a minimum of seven hours a night.
Reduce your intake of sodium by reading food labels and choosing lower-sodium items. Avoiding the salt shaker will only make a small dent in your daily sodium intake, since the majority of salt we consume comes from processed foods we purchase. Consistently exceeding the recommended daily sodium threshold of 2,400 milligrams raises the danger of developing high blood pressure, often a precursor to heart disease.
Don’t smoke cigarettes, or do everything in your power to stop, if you do. Although we tend to associate smoking with lung problems and cancer, it also plays a role in cardiovascular disease. Smoking is a major cause of atherosclerosis, which is the build up of fatty substances on the arteries. This narrowing results in a decrease of oxygen-rich blood flow to the heart muscle. Over time, if one or more of the arteries that lead to the heart get totally blocked, a heart attack may occur.
Talk to your doctor about antioxidant vitamin supplements and/or baby aspirin as a defense against heart disease and heart attack. However, no matter what your doctor may recommend, vitamins won't prevent the development of heart disease if you don't control your other risk factors, such as poor diet, lack of physical activity, smoking, high cholesterol and diabetes.
Adopt a pet. Individuals who own animals have a live-in, stress-reducing pal and often have lower blood pressures. If that pet happens to be a dog, you also have a great exercise buddy.
Learn and practice stress management skills. If you find yourself saying, “this stress is killing me!” you may not be exaggerating. Chronic stress has been linked with decreasing the immune system, and increasing the risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease. Daily meditation, exercise, journaling and “me” time have all been shown to considerably reduce the amount and intensity of daily stress.
Drink green tea and treat yourself to dark chocolate on Valentine’s Day, or any day. Antioxidants in green tea improve blood vessel function, and eating a small amount of dark chocolate can lower blood pressure and reduce the inflammation that leads to cardiovascular disease.
Decrease daily negativity and increase your positivity. Mountains of research exist to show that an abundance of negative emotions such as anger and stress affect cardiovascular health, and positive emotions such as joy, gratitude and love boost our immune systems. By remaining positive, you’ll not only make life more fun, you’ll be taking care of your heart.
American Heart Association Circulation. "Antioxidant Vitamin Supplements and Cardiovascular Disease," accessed January 2012. http://circ.ahajournals.org.
Cleveland Clinic. "Heart and Vascular Health and Prevention," accessed January 2012. www.my.clevelandclinic.org.
Fredrickson, Barbara. 2009. Positivity. New York: Crown Publishers. American Medical Association. 2008. Guide to Preventing Heart Disease. New Jersey: John Riley & Sons, Inc.
Harvard Health Publications. "Gender Matters: Heart Disease Risk in Women," accessed January 2012. http://www.health.harvard.edu.