Given that February is American Heart Month, what better time to give that very important muscle a little extra attention? Diet, exercise and lifestyle factors all play important roles in protecting against heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure that can lead to heart attack, stroke and more.
Take a peek below at 10 easy changes to make this month in order to show your health and yourself a little love!
Own Those Omega-3s
Researchers believe that omega-3 fatty acids help to prevent coronary heart disease and slow the disease’s progression in those already effected. Our arteries become damaged by inflammation or high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, both of which omega-3s help mediate. While these can be taken in the form of fish oil supplements, enjoying food is more beneficial thanks to the other heart-healthy elements it contains.
The best omega-3-rich foods include salmon, herring, mackerel, oysters, sardines, anchovies, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds and soybeans.
Catch Some Z’s
We all know that a restless night’s sleep leaves us feeling pretty crummy the next day, right? But sleep is likewise important on a deeper level, and particularly for heart health. One study found that those who slept fewer than six hours per night were about twice as likely to have a stroke or heart attack than people who slept six to eight hours per night. How crazy is that?!
It’s believed that a lack of sleep disrupts underlying health conditions and biological processes, including blood pressure, glucose metabolism and inflammation. Prioritizing sleep not only improves health on a cellular level but also prepares you to attack the day with a little pep in your step!
Have a Good Laugh
According to studies from the American Heart Association, laughter can actually decrease stress hormones, increase the “good” HDL cholesterol and reduce inflammation in the arteries. Plus, the benefits of laughter can last up to 24 hours!
Specifically, laughter releases endorphins that provide effects similar to aerobic exercise or cholesterol-lowering drugs. It reduces cortisol and epinephrine production (stress hormones) while likewise increasing the production of immune system-boosting antibodies.
Stick It to Stress
Stress, whether acute or chronic, puts pressure on the heart. Stressful situations create a “fight or flight” response accompanied by an increase in cortisol and adrenaline that can be harmful when sustained over a long period of time. While research on the link between longterm, day-to-day stress and inflammation is still inconclusive, it’s understood that stress leads to destructive behaviors that negatively influence the heart, such as smoking and excessive drinking.
Finding coping strategies to combat stress and anxiety is incredibly important to both heart health and one’s overall wellbeing. Try implementing more yoga, meditation, walks outdoors, reading before bed, acupuncture or any other calming methods that work best for you!
Care About Your Cardio
Whether you prefer long outdoor runs, HIIT treadmill workouts, the stair master, elliptical or bike, cardiovascular exercise provides a variety of benefits. Regular cardio decreases your blood pressure and resting heart rate, and thus your heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood throughout the body. In addition to increased circulation, cardio-based workouts help control blood sugar levels, improve “good” cholesterol and lower blood fat content.
Plus, cardio exercise helps reduce stress by releasing tension-fighting hormones such as serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, helps maintain a healthy weight and promotes restful sleep.
Don’t Slack on Dental Health
Dental hygiene is a powerful indicator of one’s overall health, and studies continue to show that bacteria in the mouth that causes periodontal disease can enter into the blood stream and increase inflammation throughout the body. And as we know, inflammation puts major stress on the heart.
A 2018 study showed that simply brushing your teeth twice a day for at least two minutes may lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases altogether. And as a daughter of an orthodontist myself, I can’t stress enough the importance of protecting those pearly whites!
Be Particular About Your Plate
It’s no surprise that diet plays a major role in one’s cardiovascular health, but knowing how to best set yourself up for success is key. To lower blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol levels and inflammation, incorporate more fatty fish (see above), antioxidant and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables (such as berries, dark leafy greens and tomatoes), avocado, legumes, edamame, nuts, seeds, green tea and even dark chocolate into your diet.
On the other hand, avoid anything high in sodium and trans fat, excess alcohol, processed foods, sugary drinks and highly inflammatory vegetable oils like canola and soybean.
Go Nuts for Nuts
I’ve already mentioned that nuts are an important addition to a heart healthy diet, but these powerful foods truly deserve their own spotlight. Nuts are not only recommended for a healthy diet but also proven to promote weight loss, improve life expectancy, reduce inflammation and more. Thanks to their omega-3s, antioxidants, monounsaturated fat and variety of vitamins and minerals, nuts help reduce bad cholesterol and the risk of heart disease and heart attack.
Take a peek at Why I’m Nuts About Nuts (& You Should be Too) for the 6 healthiest nuts I have on hand at all times and tips for purchasing nuts the right way!
While this might seem obvious, smoking is incredibly detrimental both to heart and overall health. Smoking is strongly linked to cardiovascular disease, causing approximately one out of every four CVD-related deaths, according to the Surgeon General’s Report on smoking and health.
The chemicals in cigarette smoke cause the cells that line blood vessels to become swollen and inflamed which can narrow the vessels and lead to cardiovascular conditions. Inhaling secondhand smoke has been seen to bring about the same effects, so I urge you to avoid both at all costs!
Slip in Some Strength Training
While cardio is indeed important for heart health, don’t forget about pumping a little iron as well. Strength training promotes lean muscle mass, giving your cardiovascular system places to send the blood being pumped, thus relieving the pressure on your arteries. A recent study by the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Journal showed that weight training may reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke even for those who don’t engage in aerobic exercise.
While lifting weights in the gym is an obvious option, other great strength training workouts include barre, pilates, Yoga Sculpt (come take my class at CorePower Yoga here in Austin!) or simple body weight exercises on your own.
While heart health should be a priority all year long, allow this American Heart Month to be the kick in the pants you might be in need of. Small changes to one’s diet, fitness routine and overall lifestyle can be incredibly impactful to create a healthier, happier you!