by Darra McMullen,
Women’s Health Network Writer/Researcher
The month of February has recently become synonymous with various “heart health” initiatives, most of which are very commendable, but sometimes the emphasis on diet and exercise in cardiovascular wellness may seem so overwhelming that the “average Joe (or Julie)” may feel inadequate to the task and give up before ever getting good started on a potentially life saving new way of behaving.
That scenario would be a very unfortunate and possibly, tragic, turn of events. It would be better by far to take the “requirement” of off-putting words like “regimen”, “diet”, “exercise plan”, or “life makeover” out of the equation and instead, focus on small, doable steps that can be made a few at a time and gently worked into a person’s current life routine. Small changes, implemented over time and adhered to consistently, can make big differences in heart and overall cardiovascular health.
The purpose of this article is to give the reader some solid suggestions of small ways to improve the big picture of personal cardiovascular health.
Concept One: Think of creative ways to add a little more exercise several times a day to your daily life.
• Many experts agree that three rounds of 10 minutes each of mild to moderate exercise is as effective in helping the body as a 30 minute dedicated exercise bout.
• “Exercise” doesn’t have to be an elaborate routine done in a gym to have significant beneficial health effects. Simple walking, gardening, mopping floors, or carrying objects to and fro can serve as exercise.
• Do you like to shop? Simply commit to 10 minutes (or more if you like) of walking around in a large store, inside a mall, outside at a strip mall, or even along the perimeters of a parking lot to get one or more of your daily exercise rounds. Just be sure to do some walking without stopping for a few minutes (10 or more) before pausing to examine merchandise.
• Do you start to feel tired, sleepy, or at least “unfocused” at work? Get up and walk around – in the hall, outside the building, or up and down a few flights of stairs. If you think your supervisor will object, explain that you are trying to improve your fitness and cardiovascular health and ask if you may stay a little late or come in a little early to the office to make up the “missing” time. For the sake of supporting your position, politely explain to your supervisor that healthy and focused employees are more productive on the job in the long run, even if absent from their desk briefly each day.
• Use the “commercial” time of your favorite T.V. shows to do some simple exercises. Squats, lunges, jumping jacks, jump rope, or light dumbbell exercises for arms and shoulders can all be done to improve cardiovascular health and muscle tone with minimal time commitment.
• While talking on the phone, pace around the room, if possible, or walk in place. Even simple standing while talking is better for cardiovascular health than sitting.
• When sitting for long periods to work on paperwork or computer tasks, remember to get up and move around for a few minutes every hour. Even three to five minute “movement breaks” can improve circulation, as well as attentiveness and productivity.
Concept Two: Instead of embarking on a formal “diet”, consider how many small, daily tweaks you can make to your food intake to improve nutrition and cardiovascular health. A few suggestions are listed below.
• Add a side of fresh fruit or cooked (or fresh) vegetables to your main course at a restaurant. The extra fiber and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals) will help your health in general, and in particular, will help to clear excess fat and cholesterol from your digestive tract.
• Remember to work in several servings of avocados, flax, olive oil, and fish into your weekly meals to get healthy fats and anti-inflammatory benefits.
• When possible, choose free-range eggs, meats, and wild caught fish. These more “natural” protein sources have a healthier spectrum of fats and micronutrients and bring with them anti-inflammatory properties for the cardiovascular system.
• Many people should consider supplementing with CoQ10, turmeric, resveratrol, and magnesium. All of these substances are excellent for heart health and blood pressure. Turmeric is widely regarded in a positive manner for its anti-inflammatory properties throughout the body, including the cardiovascular system.
• When cooking at home in a time crunch, think of using ground meats (beef, chicken, turkey, or pork) or any meat in small chunks or strips thrown in a pot with a variety of fresh, frozen, or even canned vegetables and seasoned simply with a “season all” type seasoning mixture, or alternatively, a few of your favorite herbs. Such meat/veggie one-pot combos are highly nutritious, tasty, quick, and good for your cardiovascular system. Look for lean meat choices. If the only readily available ground meat is high fat, you can ask the butcher to grind a higher priced, lean cut for you. No, you’re not committing culinary heresy to grind a lean and expensive cut of meat; you’re looking out for your health and reducing your food preparation time.
For a vegetarian alternative, substitute beans or peas for the meat in these delicious one-pot combos. Beans and peas are very “heart healthy”, inexpensive, and full of protein and fiber.
Concept Three: Think beyond just “diet and exercise” for ways to guard your cardiovascular health.
• Get vaccinated for the flu and also for pneumonia. Both diseases are taxing to the heart, especially in middle-aged or older adults. Serious heart damage can result if either of these diseases progresses too far before intervention is taken. Even if a bout of flu or pneumonia is mild to moderate in nature, blood pressure is almost always at least a little elevated for some of the time of the course of the disease. Infections of any kind can cause an increase in blood pressure during the duration of the infection.
• Don’t forget that “matters of the heart” really do matter to the heart’s health. Heartbreak of any significant type – loss of a loved one, loss of a home, job, or way of life can actually damage the heart at least temporarily. “Broken heart syndrome”, a reversible form of cardiomyopathy, has been a well-documented phenomenon among victims of natural disasters in the United States. If you have suffered any kind of major setback, be extra mindful of your heart health and give yourself some time to heal, emotionally and physically, before pressing on to another stressful goal or situation.
• Strained or broken relationships also negatively impact heart health. For your own health and the health of others, reach out to that person with whom you’ve had a spat or have ignored due to a “too busy” schedule. Your chronic stress levels (and theirs) will go down, and cardiovascular health will improve.
Hopefully, these diet, exercise, and life tips will serve as a starting springboard for a healthier future, and will inspire you to follow your intuition about how to improve your personal heart health. Just like a healthy heart rhythm, slow, steady, and deliberate progress wins the race.