Do you realize how much your daily habits impact your heart health? Most people do not. If you are not living a heart-friendly lifestyle, it’s time to take stock and start taking better care of yourself.
You don’t need to overhaul your life completely. But you do need to start paying attention to your daily habits. Because if your heart doesn’t stay strong, a decrease in your health and possibly illness could be right around the corner.
Many of the suggestions I am about to make may sound familiar. You may think, “I’ve heard this all before.” Instead, I invite you to look at these suggestions from a different perspective. Ask yourself, “How can I begin to incorporate these ideas into my daily life in a way that will be sustainable?”
Clean up your diet and strive to make it heart-healthy.
Limit red meats, fried foods, salt, sweets, and simple added sugars. Instead, increase plant-based proteins, low-fat dairy products, lean meats and fish, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Good advice, but it sounds like a tall order. Try a step-by-step approach. This week, pick one meal to focus on improving. Start your day with eggs and whole-grain toast rather than a muffin or bagel. At lunchtime, add one fruit or vegetable each day. Choose a baked potato rather than french fries with your dinner. Pick one meal or one change, focus on it until it feels more habitual, and then go on to another. What will you do today to begin cleaning up your diet?
Start moving more every day.
Exercise gets your heart pumping, circulates oxygen throughout your body, and leads to better blood circulation and a stronger heart muscle. If you are not yet exercising regularly, begin thinking about how you might include movement on a more regular basis each day. Yes, ideally, it would be great to be exercising for at least 30-minutes five times a week. However, if your desk chair and couch are where you spend most of your waking hours, you’ll need to start slow.
There are many ways to increase movement before you embark on a formal exercise program. And even if you do work out consistently, your heart will thank you for every bit of extra activity you add to your day.
Incorporate a ten-minute walk after lunch each day. Set the alarm on your phone to go off once an hour to remind you to get up and move for five minutes. Buy a Fitbit or pedometer and challenge yourself to get more daily steps. Buy wireless headphones and walk around while on a Zoom or telephone business meeting. What can you begin doing today to increase your daily movement?
Watch your weight.
Being overweight or obese are major risk factors for heart disease. The good news is that losing as little as 10% of your body weight can significantly decrease your cardiovascular risk by modifying multiple risk factors.
If you incorporate my first two suggestions, you will be well on your way to decreasing extra pounds. In addition, here are a few ideas that will help manage your weight and get you closer to a heart-healthy body weight.
First, if you have been avoiding the scale, it is time to step on and get a reality check. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to your weight. And not checking in regularly (I recommend one to two times a week) may have you carrying way more pounds than you think.
Examine your daily habits, and see if you can find one small change that can add up to a huge difference. For instance, just switching from soda to a non-calorie beverage such as water or tea can eliminate a considerable amount of extra sugar from your diet. In the habit of grabbing a couple of cookies after lunch and dinner? Switch to a piece of fruit instead. Create a rule, “No eating past 8 PM.” Figure out where the unnecessary calories are slipping into your diet and pick one habit to change at a time.
Begin to prioritize good sleep.
Sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality are associated with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and even heart attacks and stroke. Chronic poor sleep impacts way more than just feeling irritable, unfocused, and lacking in energy. Consistent, high-quality sleep is good for your heart and your overall health!
Most adults need at least seven hours of quality sleep every night. So it’s time to stop convincing yourself that you can get by with much less, that staying up to get more done is actually helpful, or that sleep is just not a priority at this time in your life.
There are dozens of ideas on how to achieve both more and better sleep. Start by choosing one thing that will help you create better sleep habits. Is it shutting down all electronics one hour before bedtime? Getting to bed fifteen minutes earlier consistently until it’s a habit, and then shift bedtime back another fifteen minutes? All those techniques and many others work, but it begins with a mind shift first. Sleep is not a luxury; it is a priority to live a heart-healthy lifestyle.
If you smoke, stop!
You don’t need me to tell you that people who smoke have a greater risk for heart attacks compared to those that don’t. If you smoke, talk with your health care provider about ways to quit. There are medicines, nicotine replacement, and alternative strategies to help.
Nurture the important relationships in your life.
One of the keys to longevity that research has shown can add years to your life and life to your years is having a robust circle of social connections. An article in Harvard Health Publishing highlights the research that shows loneliness can stress the heart and the entire cardiovascular system and cause as much harm as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Conversely, social connections, intimacy, and love help the heart and blood vessels thrive.
If you want to live a heart-friendly lifestyle, you should be nurturing your essential relationships and building new ones as time goes on. Consider joining groups or attending meetings that will widen your social network. Take the time to call and reconnect with old friends or family members you have lost touch with. Block time for date night or family game night. Give your significant other an extra hug as they head out the door, and thank them for attending to an everyday chore. Choose one idea that appeals to you, and act on it today.
Build yourself a robust stress-management toolbox.
Continued and elevated stress has been consistently linked to all kinds of health problems, including an increased risk for heart disease and stroke.
The first step to decrease or manage your stress is identifying the causes. You might think you know what contributes to your constant stress, but dig deeper. For example, if it’s your job, ask yourself what about your job stresses you out. Is it an overabundant workload, clients or co-workers who are difficult to get along with, or a boss who doesn’t respect your boundaries, believing you should be available 24-7? Are you stressed about finances? Is it overspending that causes the stress, or not enough income coming in to support yourself comfortably? Although not all stress can be eliminated, knowing the underlying cause is the first step towards reducing or managing the stress.
No matter what is causing your stress, even when it is something you have no control over, you should have a toolbox. The great news is that all of the above suggestions will manage your emotions when feeling stressed out. Eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep, and spending time with others are all great tools for managing stress.
Some other ideas you may find helpful are deep breathing, meditation, journaling, massage therapy, or spending time in nature. Figure out what works best for you. Now ask yourself, “What can I incorporate daily to help manage my stress levels? The next time I feel myself becoming overwhelmed by stress, what is one thing I can try to calm myself down?”
Begin building a heart-friendly lifestyle with one tip at a time. Not only will your cardiovascular system improve, but your well-being and happiness will too.