We talk a lot about cardiovascular disease and the heart, but why is heart health important? Once you understand why it’s so important to look after your heart, starting to make dietary and lifestyle changes suddenly makes a whole lot of sense.
Why Heart Health Matters
Just as the engine of a car keeps the vehicle going, your heart keeps your body going. But unlike a car engine that only runs when you put the key in the ignition, your heart pumps around the clock, day in and day out. In fact, in the average lifetime, a human heart pumps 2.5 billion times.
Besides its obvious function of keeping you alive, your heart pumps nutrient and oxygen-rich blood to every part of your body—including the brain—and plays an important role in mental health and immunity. The better your heart works, the more oxygen your body will receive, the better you’ll feel, and the stronger your immune system is going to be.
At What Age Should People Start Thinking about Heart Health?
There is no magic age for starting to think about heart health—every day of your life that you lead a heart-healthy lifestyle will increase your energy levels and lower your risk for cardiac events. On the flip side, every day that you neglect to take care of your heart is a day that brings you closer to poor heart health and an increased risk of cardiac events.
For example, a child who eats a heart-healthy diet and maintains an active lifestyle will have more energy, a better mood, and less illness than a child who is sedentary and eats a diet high in sugar, salt, and fried foods. Likewise, an adult with several risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease can potentially prevent or even reverse heart disease by making changes now.
How to Improve Your Heart Health
The good news is that anyone, at any age, can start to take care of their heart. In most cases, you’ll start feeling better almost immediately and your risk of a heart attack or stroke can start to lower in days. Start doing these things today and your heart health will quickly improve.
Start Doing Aerobic Exercise
As the heart is a muscle, it makes sense that exercising it helps to keep it strong. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) recommends a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity for adults every week, which works out to be 30 minutes, five times a week. Alternatively, you can do 75 minutes of more intense aerobic activity every week, such as running, or a combination of the two. In addition to aerobic activity, adults need two strength training sessions per week in which they work all the major muscle groups.
To make your exercise routine sustainable, start with activities that are accessible, like going for a brisk 30-minute walk, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or running around outside for half an hour each evening with children or pets. As these activities become a habit, you can raise the intensity with weight training, fitness classes, or sports.
Adopt a Heart-Healthy Diet
High blood pressure and cardiovascular disease have been linked with certain foods that Americans tend to consume on a regular basis, including Omega-6-rich vegetable oils (such as those used for frying), table salt, refined sugar, and full-fat, pasteurized dairy products. Most food products that come in packets are high in all or some of these things.
To reach a healthier blood pressure and improve your heart health, gradually replace the ingredients listed above with ingredients that are good for your heart, such as fruit and vegetables which are high in fiber, whole grains, legumes, a small number of nuts and seeds, olive oil, lean meats, and low-fat, fermented, or fresh (unprocessed) dairy products if available. It also helps to cut back on table salt as this is a known factor in high blood pressure.
Eating healthy not only improves your heart health and lowers high blood pressure, but it also helps you to reach or maintain a healthy weight and could improve your digestion and skin health as well. If time is an obstacle, there are several companies that make weekly pre-measured ingredient boxes to make it easier and quicker to prepare fresh, healthy meals.
Cut Down on Alcohol
In small amounts, alcohol consumption shows a correlation with fewer cardiovascular events, but heavy drinking is a risk factor for heart disease. If you enjoy a beer or a cup of red wine, limit yourself to a single serving (according to the measurements explained on the can or bottle), and enjoy once a day or preferably two or three times a week.
Avoid Tobacco Smoke
Smoking damages the arteries and multiplies your risk of heart disease. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about proven strategies for quitting. If you don’t smoke, stay away from people who do. Research shows that after quitting, an ex-smoker’s risk of heart disease starts to reduce very quickly, and is around that of a non-smoker two years after quitting.
While the connection might not seem immediately obvious, a happy heart is a healthier heart. Emotional stress puts strain on every bodily system—including circulation, digestion, and even reproduction—and has been associated with the onset of heart disease.
Methods for reducing stress include:
- Regular exercise
- Loving-kindness meditation
- Keeping a gratitude journal
- Dealing with sources of emotional stress in your life
- Adopting a more positive, empowered mindset
As with exercise, retraining your brain takes time and effort and becomes easier as you develop new neural pathways. If you are facing a particularly difficult situation in your life or need help changing your thinking patterns, consider seeing a professional psychologist.
Have Regular Check-Ups
It’s important to have your cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and type-2 diabetes risk checked every year and to check your weight and body mass index more frequently if you’re overweight. Knowing where you stand with regard to these risk factors will help you work out (and stick with) a plan to improve your health.
Know How to Respond to a Sudden Cardiac Arrest
If someone in your family already has heart disease or known risk factors for a cardiac event, it’s important to be familiar with the signs of a heart attack and cardiac arrest and know how to use a portable defibrillator—such as the Philips HeartStart FRx or LIFEPAK CR2—if needed. While we hope it never happens, your fast action could save their life and inspire them to make the necessary changes to prevent a second cardiac arrest in the future.
Take Care of Your Heart and It Will Take Care of You
No matter what your heart health is like now, making dietary and lifestyle improvements as soon as you can (i.e. today!) will improve the strength and functioning of your heart and help you to feel happier and more energetic.
And while you start to talk with your loved ones about preparing for a potential cardiac emergency—a conversation that every family needs to have—have a chat about heart health and make a plan together to improve. Having a buddy or group to work with on health and fitness is the best path to sustainable change.