By Svetlana Jayson, APN-C
The heart is the workhorse of the body, beating about 2.5 billion times over an average lifetime.
Staying heart healthy is essential to overall good health and to reducing your risk of developing heart disease or having a heart attack or stroke.
More than 30 million Americans have heart disease, the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In celebration of American Heart Month, show your heart some love with these lifestyle tips.
Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet
In general, a heart-healthy diet consists primarily of whole foods and mainly of fresh fruit and vegetables. In other words, the food is largely unprocessed. An apple is an apple. A piece of fish is a piece of fish. Broccoli is — you guessed it — is broccoli.
The American Heart Association recommends following a Mediterranean-style diet, which typically includes:
• Plenty of fruits, vegetables, bread and other grains, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds.
• Olive oil as a primary fat source.
• Dairy products, eggs, fish and poultry in low to moderate amounts.
A heart-healthy diet also takes into account portion sizes. As the American Heart Association notes, portion sizes have increased dramatically over the past 40 years, and adults consume an average 300 more calories a day than they did in 1985. These extra calories can add up and contribute to obesity, one of the main risk factors for heart disease.
Want to control portion sizes? Give yourself a hand. Literally.
Your hand is a good representation for how much you should eat at each meal. Your open palm is equivalent to a 3-4 ounce serving of protein like chicken or fish, while a closed fist represents a cup of vegetables. Limit fats to the size of the tip of your thumb, and starches like pasta or rice should fit in a cupped hand. To help you feel full longer, eat high fiber foods like beans, nuts and whole grains.
Just like other muscles in your body, your heart needs exercise to stay strong and work efficiently. Moreover, exercise also helps you maintain a healthy weight, manage blood pressure, and reduce cholesterol, all of which are good for your heart.
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week. However, if just reading that is enough to make your heart rate go up, start slow.
Try taking a walk around the neighborhood a few times a day or hopping on your bike for a ride around the park. Take an online fitness class. Find an activity you enjoy and work up to the recommended goal. The most important thing is to move more.
While stress hasn’t been directly linked to heart disease, there’s no question that it contributes to risk factors such as high blood pressure, overeating, smoking and physical inactivity.
When you’re stressed you may not be as mindful of your diet and turn to high-fat, low-nutrient food to cope. Your exercise routine may fall to the wayside. Some people drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes to manage stress — these behaviors can increase blood pressure and damage artery walls.
Avoiding stress is easier said than done, but certain actions can help manage stress, including:
• Take 15 minutes each day to do something you enjoy. Whether it’s reading a book, looking at art or dancing around your kitchen, do something that makes you happy.
• Head outdoors. Getting outside in nature helps you to get outside of your head.
• Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation.
• Work out. Though you may not feel like hitting that treadmill after a long, stressful day, exercise is a proven stress-buster.
• Get enough sleep. More on that below.
Get Your ZZZs
Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep each night. However, according to the CDC, more than 1 in 3 say they don’t get the recommended amount of ZZZs.
Lack of sleep is linked to high blood pressure and can lead to unhealthy weight gain. It can also leave you more vulnerable to stress and its damaging effects.
To get better sleep, the CDC recommends that you:
• Stick to a regular sleep schedule. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends.
• Get enough natural light, especially earlier in the day. Try going for a morning or lunchtime walk.
• Get enough physical activity during the day. Try not to exercise within a few hours of bedtime.
• Avoid artificial light, especially within a few hours of bedtime. Use a blue light filter on your computer or smartphone.
• Don’t eat or drink within a few hours of bedtime; avoid alcohol and foods high in fat or sugar in particular.
• Keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet.
In simplest terms, smoking damages your blood vessels and is one of the greatest risk factors for a range of cardiovascular conditions, including heart disease and stroke. In fact, smoking is behind 1 in every 4 deaths from cardiovascular disease. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about how you can quit.
Healthy choices are easier to make when everyone’s heart is in it. Make leading a heart-healthy lifestyle a family affair. Cook healthy meals together. Play outside. Go for a hike.
Friends and colleagues can also support each other. Studies show that having positive, close relationships and feeling connected to others helps blood pressure, weight and overall health.
Additionally, annual physical exams as well as following the advice of your primary care doctor and cardiologist are also keys to a healthy heart.
To find a primary care physician affiliated with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call 1-888-742-7496 or visit www.princetonhcs.org.
Svetlana Jayson, APN-C, is a board certified advanced practice nurse on staff at Penn Medicine Princeton Health.