Looking after your heart involves making choices to eat nutritious foods, exercise regularly, and control stress. We walk you through a heart-healthy day!
We often take our hearts for granted until something goes wrong. Yet many coronary problems can be prevented or lessened through fairly simple lifestyle changes. Think of making heart healthy choices every day—starting today—as paying it forward for a future of physical well-being.
The facts on heart health
The statistics are sobering. More than 1.37 million Canadians have heart disease, which claims more than 49,000 lives each year. While some causes are genetic, up to 80 percent of cardiovascular disease (CVD) is caused by risk factors we can control—smoking, not exercising, eating poorly, being overweight, having high blood pressure or cholesterol, and chronic stress. Currently, nine in 10 Canadians over the age of 20 have at least one risk factor; four in 10 have three or more.
But we have the power to make changes each day that can dramatically reduce our risk.
Become heart healthy
Being heart healthy is a conscious choice to eat well, exercise, control stress, and pay attention to our bodies. Over time, these choices become automatic and feel more natural. We feel and look better. Other health issues may diminish because what’s good for the heart is good for the whole body.
Start small, substituting one good habit for a bad one or tweaking an okay habit into a better one, and build on prior achievements. That’s the recipe for success. Changes take at least two months to become habits. A bit of backsliding is normal. Instead of stressing about mistakes, we need to let them go and focus on doing better tomorrow. Remember, stress is a risk factor we can control.
Plan a heart-healthy day
The easiest way to achieve heart health is to make specific heart-healthy choices every day.
The key to developing healthy habits is mindfulness and focus. On waking up, we can remind ourselves of our commitment to heart health. Then we can choose a specific habit to focus on, such as eating healthier, moving more, not smoking, or meditating to decrease stress. Using our first waking moments for meditation, positive thinking, affirmation, or visualization gets us off to a good start.
Following a morning routine allows us to prepare as much as possible the night before by organizing gym clothes or packing lunches. Planning dials down the stress-o-meter and sets a more relaxing tone for the entire day. So does waking up on time instead of scrambling out of bed at the last minute. A few minutes of stretching, tai chi, or yoga prepares our bodies for action.
After hours of overnight fasting, our bodies need high quality protein, dairy products, whole grains, and fruits or vegetables. Don’t even consider a double double with an oversized muffin when you’re on the run!
To get heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids at breakfast, add ground flaxseed or walnuts to cereal, oatmeal, or yogurt, or replace regular eggs with free-range omega-3 eggs. The antioxidant lutein, found in eggs, may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Eggs are also an excellent source of protein, calcium, and vitamin D.
The daily commute
For many of us, commuting is a fact of life. Unfortunately, a 2011 study cited traffic and air pollution as significant heart attack triggers. Even if we can’t walk or bike to work, we can make our drive time healthier by finding ways to shorten it or make it more active.
If we drive, we can
- park farther away in order to walk farther
- leave earlier or later to avoid heavy traffic periods
- use flex hours (if available) to ease commuting time and stress
- work from home and avoid the commute altogether
If we take public transit, we can
- walk to and from bus stops or subway/train stations
- stand rather than sit, which forces our muscles to engage, turning commute time into exercise time
- exit before reaching our destination and walk part of the way
The work day
Most of us work with our heads, rather than our bodies, which means hours of sitting at a desk. With a little ingenuity, we can make our work environment more heart friendly by replacing sedentary habits with movement.
While standing desks and treadmill desks are luxury items, there are simple ways to reduce the time we spend sitting at our desks:
- set our cellphones to ring or vibrate every hour to remind us to engage in a five-minute stretching session or brisk walk
- use headsets and walk while we talk
- walk to a colleague’s desk or office rather than using the phone or email
- visit the water cooler; besides providing a little exercise, water hydrates us
- place files or the garbage can out of reach, forcing us to get up and go to them
While moving helps our bodies deal with work-related stress, there are other things we can do to reduce our stress levels. We can
- get organized
- learn to say no
- focus on one thing rather than multitask
- accept imperfection
- reward ourselves for a job well done
- practise breathing and relaxation techniques when we feel overwhelmed
While brown-bagging gives us control over lunch choices, eating out doesn’t have to derail healthy eating if we focus on portion control, emphasize healthy rather than fast food, skip dessert, and say no to “extras.”
Lunchtime also allows us to break up the work day, providing an opportunity to
- take a short walk
- practise relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga
- soak up some sunlight, especially if we work in windowless offices
A 2014 study found exposure to natural light while at work helps lower our blood pressure, makes us livelier and more physically active, and helps us sleep better.
Junk food can hurt our heart, but eating a healthy diet can strengthen it. Start by making simple substitutions and work up to bigger changes:
- follow a Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes extra-virgin olive oil, plant-based foods, fish, dairy products, a small amount of alcohol with meals, and minimal consumption of red meat
- serve broth-based soups, rather than cream-based soups
- eat heart-healthy vegetables such as asparagus, bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, beans, and garlic
- eat fish twice a week
- replace ground beef in chili, casseroles, meat sauce, and lasagna with ground turkey, a soy-based meat substitute, or mushrooms
Make dinner a family affair
It’s never too soon to instill heart-healthy habits. Enlist kids’ help with shopping and cooking so they’re more likely to eat what’s on the menu. Plus, studies show that kids who eat with their families eat healthier and have stronger social ties.
Study the menu when eating out
Data from a large 2014 US study indicated restaurant food is higher in calories, saturated fat, and salt than home-cooked meals. To make dining out healthier
- ask for food to be steamed, grilled, or broiled instead of fried
- substitute salad (dressing on the side) or veggies for fries
- eat half of the meal and doggie bag the rest
Leisure time means just that—not checking cellphones and work emails 24/7, but it doesn’t mean collapsing on the couch in front of the TV. Activity leads to healthy hearts and less stress. So, ditch the couch and
- go to the gym or work out to an exercise DVD
- go outside and walk, cycle, rollerblade, skate, or ski
- get active with your kids for their benefit and yours
- turn on your favourite music and dance while cleaning the house
- pursue hobbies such as painting, singing, dancing, or bowling
- take classes to learn new things and meet people
Build a strong social network
This is essential for our health, making us less vulnerable to depression and heart disease. So, instead of screen time,
- stay in touch with friends and family
- get involved in your neighbourhood
Sleep gives our bodies a chance to recharge and heal. Yet many of us aren’t getting enough or are having interrupted sleep, putting us at risk for high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and heart attack.
To sleep well, we need to train our internal clocks and decrease distractions:
- develop soothing bedtime routines such as a warm bath, herbal tea, or soft music
- go to bed and wake up at the same time every day
- keep the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet
- use our beds for sleeping, not reading, watching TV, or working
- go for a brisk walk late in the afternoon or early evening
- eliminate nighttime alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine
- see your health care practitioner to deal with problems such as sleep apnea, which boosts blood pressure and disturbs heart rhythms
Supplements for heart health
Researchers are studying a host of supplements to support heart health. Some mimic conventional drugs; others work with conventional drugs to improve symptoms and outcomes or decrease side effects. Here are some recent results.
Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
- helped decrease blood pressure
- improved symptoms of chronic heart failure
Fish oil with omega-3 fatty acids
- reduced triglyceride levels
- improved blood pressure
- reduced risk of heart attack and stroke
- reduced inflammation
- reduced arterial calcification, protecting against stroke and CVD
- prevented inflammation in blood vessels
- prevented platelets from aggregating
Other supplements that may lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and/or raise HDL (good) cholesterol include
- fibre (in particular, psyllium husk)
- flaxseed and flaxseed oil
- green tea (as a drink and an extract)
Always consult a health care practitioner to find the best supplements for your particular health situation.
Did you know?
The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon are a heart lover’s dream; they
- reduce inflammation
- lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels
- may help prevent abnormal heart rhythms
- Canadians consume an average of 3,400 mg of sodium each day.
- One in five heart attacks and strokes suffered by Canadians are attributed to excess sodium consumption.
- The recommended daily intake level of sodium is 1,500 mg for healthy people between the ages of nine and 50.
Aged garlic extract
While garlic has traditionally been used for its antibacterial, anticancer, and anticoagulant properties, aged garlic extract (AGE) is gaining attention. The aging process increases garlic’s antioxidant properties while modifying its unstable compounds into more stable, bioavailable substances.
Research has found that AGE is effective at
- lowering blood pressure
- decreasing platelet stickiness (the buildup and adhesion of blood cells to vascular walls)
The combination of AGE and CoQ10 has been shown to
- significantly decrease C-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker
- lower blood pressure
- slow the progression of coronary atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries, one of the main causes of CVD)
One-quarter of CVD deaths are the result of inactivity. For many of us, inactivity takes the form of sitting—in a car, at work, or in front of a screen.
Along with using fewer calories than standing or moving, sitting may suppress metabolic processes needed to break down fats and sugars in the body. It’s linked with obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess abdominal body fat, and abnormal cholesterol levels—all factors in heart disease.
In a 2011 study, adults who watched more than four hours of recreational screen time daily increased their risk of CVD by 125 percent compared to those who logged less than two hours. A 2013 study, using data from the Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study of more than 70,000 women, also drove home this point. Too much sitting was a significant risk factor for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Build regular physical activity including endurance/cardio, flexibility, and strength training into your day. While experts recommend 30 to 60 minutes of exercise daily, as little as 10 to 15 minutes of moderately intense exercise each day may reduce heart disease risk by up to half.
By picking something we enjoy—whether it’s swimming, cycling, dancing, jogging, or brisk walking—we’re more likely to stick with it. Having an exercise buddy helps, too.