Happy Heart Health Month!
We should all be concerned with maintaining good health and taking action to reduce our risk of heart disease because it claims more than half a million lives in the United States on average each year. The good news is that it also one of the most preventable.
As a health coach, one of my biggest priorities is helping educate people on the importance of choosing lifestyle habits that prevent many major diseases. But while the lifestyle practices that can reduce our risk of heart disease are fairly obvious, it doesn’t mean that they are always easy. The recommendations by all medical experts and organizations committed to educating on heart health are:
- Not smoking
- Avoiding excessive alcohol consumption
- Eating healthy unprocessed foods
- Exercising regularly
- Reducing stress
- Knowing your family history
If you have a history of heart disease, it is important to know that it doesn’t mean you are destined to get it, but you will want to be extra sure you are living a healthy lifestyle and working with medical and wellness practitioners to get regular check-ups and blood work. You also want to make sure you have a diet that is mostly plant-based, full of whole foods, and avoids lots of processed/packaged foods and refined sugars. But honestly, this is advice that we should all take for optimal health and to live a long, vibrant life.
Something else important to know also is that our risk also goes up as we age. Establishing healthy lifestyle habits early can really reduce the risk factors for heart disease, but we need to continue our dedication even more as we get older. For example, four out of five people who die from coronary heart disease are aged 65 or older. The risk of stroke doubles with each decade after the age of 55. Men tend to get the disease about ten years earlier than women, but death rates from heart disease and stroke for women are twice as high as those for all forms of cancer. This may be in large part due to heart disease’s correlation to other diseases like obesity and diabetes.
Bottom line – we should all be very proactive about maintaining good health so that we can avoid heart disease as well as other diseases that are lifestyle related.
How do we do this?
All of the healthy lifestyle habits outlined above are important, but three practices are key in my view:
- Eating the Rainbow
- Consistent Moderate Exercise
- Stress Reduction
Eating the Rainbow means eating a wide variety of colored fruits and vegetables. The phytonutrients in many vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables have links to various health benefits, including heart health. You want to make sure you are getting healthy fats and proteins as well but a variety of plant-based food is really the key to long-term wellness and diseases prevention – not just heart-related disease but all disease!
Check out some of the heart health benefits you get from these different colors of produce (and this is not even the whole rainbow of benefits):
Purple (or bluish): Blueberries, grapes, beets, and other produce on this part of the spectrum are nutritional powerhouses. Among their other properties, they’re high in anthocyanins, which are linked to multiple benefits, including cardiovascular health.
Red: Tomatoes, pomegranates, cranberries, and other red fruits and veggies, like their purple or blue cousins, are high in anthocyanins. Tomatoes are also an excellent source of lycopene, which may help reduce risk for cardiovascular disease.
Green: What makes spinach, broccoli, and those other green superstars so good for your heart? They’re excellent sources of carotenoids, which have antioxidant properties. They’re also good sources of vitamins A and K, calcium, potassium, fiber, and more.
For those of us that struggle to get our 9-13 recommended servings per day and eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables (which is the vast majority of us), we can thank the Juice Plus+ Company for providing nutrition from up to 30 plants in powdered form that can be consumed in a capsule or chewable. My husband, kids and I take this every single day and as a mom and health coach I get tons of assurance that this along with other healthy lifestyle practices (see more below) are helping us beat any history of heart disease!
Consistent Moderate Exercise means aiming for at least 30 minutes of some form of exercise 5 days a week BUT squeezing in some form of exercise – even if just 10-minutes a day can also be beneficial. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing. Anything is better than nothing when it comes to exercise! Aerobic exercise – such as running, biking, skating, playing tennis, or swimming – strengthens the heart muscle so it doesn’t need to beat as fast, allowing it to deliver blood more efficiently to your whole body. It also lowers your LDL (bad) cholesterol, helping keep your arteries clear, and decreases your risk of conditions associated with heart disease, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.1
Even as a health coach I’m the first person to admit that getting to the gym is not something I can regularly achieve. I run a home-based business around the time my kids are in school and so I have limited hours every day to both work and exercise. But I don’t let that be an excuse. Whether it’s taking a walk for 30 minutes with my dog or with my kids while they ride their bikes around the neighborhood, or doing some intense cardio bursts at home, even if I have to break them into 3 10-minute intervals throughout the day. [Check out this 10-minute workout you can do even at the office]
I also regularly park my car at the very back of the parking lot so I have to wake farther or take the stairs whenever I can. I often do ab exercises in my car, especially now that I live in Southern California and drive a lot more than when I lived in DC walked all the time. That said – I do still carve out time to do yoga or a spin class or some other type of exercise at least a couple times a week in addition to the examples I just mentioned that are not in a gym or studio. And a big reason I make time for higher intensity or sweat releasing fitness is my third heart-health practice recommendation: Reduced Stress! This is such a big factor in heart health and if we don’t have a physical outlet for our stress we can affect way more than just our health.
There is tons of research on the connection between exercise and mental health. And think about it – when we aren’t exercising very often, we tend to lose steam more quickly in the day and are just not that motivated to do things that are active. If we couple this with poor eating we have a perfect recipe for becoming a couch potato, and that, for most of us, leads to weight gain and puts us at risk for all kinds of health issues – high blood pressure, stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other health problems, also all related to heart disease. And let’s face it – most of us get real grumpy when we don’t have a physical outlet to release endorphins and help regulate our cortisol, our lymph system, sweat out toxins that are building up daily…I could go on and on but I think you get the point. It’s not just about preventing disease, it’s about staying healthy so we feel good and maintain a level if happiness.
Other Stress Reduction Ideas
Beyond just exercising to reduce stress, however, is the concept that we also need to train our bodies to shift into a state of calm. This is not simply resting and getting adequate sleep (also important though for overall health). The practice of mindfulness and meditation is not just a woo-woo trend anymore. There is scientific evidence about the positive stress-reducing benefits. Find out more about why cardiologists are prescribing mindfulness for heart-health.
I’ll be completely honest here, I am still working on establishing a regular meditation practice because I know how very beneficial it is but also tend to be a bit hyper-active and am super prone to monkey-mind (thoughts jumping around, slight attention deficit disorder). I have a great daily planner that has space for me to write out my gratitude list (great for shifting out of negative thought patterns) and also being intentional about how I want to feel, not just what I want to get done. I go in waves of doing this but I did create a sweet little mindfulness/meditation playlist on Spotify and will set my alarm 5-10 mins earlier, go into a quiet room, put on my playlist and just breathe for up to 10 minutes. This very simple practice can really set the tone for my day. I feel more connected and grounded and tend to have much more patience, which I know helps maintain a positive energy in a house full of boys (husband and two sons bring lots of active male energy, all.the.time!)
So, as you can see heart health is multi-faceted! But since so much of it starts with what be put in our bodies, I’ll leave you with some heart healthy food and meal ideas:
Some Heart Healthy Foods
- Beans and oatmeal are a source of soluble fiber, the kind of fiber that lowers LDL cholesterol.
- Red grapes contain resveratrol, which keep platelets in your blood from sticking together.
- Olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados all supply your body with healthy monounsaturated fats.
- Dark chocolate has flavanols, which can help lower blood pressure and have antioxidant power. (Choose 70% and don’t go overboard!)
- Salmon, tuna, sardines, walnuts, and flaxseeds provide omega-3 fatty acids, which improve blood flow and help maintain triglycerides within normal limits
Here’s a menu for a heart-healthy day:
Start the day with a bowl of oatmeal, a handful of nuts and your favorite fruit. I like apples or bananas in the winter and berries in the summer. For extra nutrition, you can mix in a scoop of Complete by Juice Plus+ once the oatmeal has finished cooking.
This lunch salad has a fun, healthy twist: the croutons are made of tofu!
Roasted chickpeas make a tempting mid-afternoon snack. Pair with an apple for even more fiber.
Colorful roasted vegetables make filling half your plate with vegetables easy. Serve with a salmon filet and your dinner is ready, complete with omega-3s.
 What aerobic exercise does for your health. Mayo Clinic. 2017 Feb 27. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/aerobic-exercise/art-20045541?pg=2