Heart Health

February is heart health month, and it is the perfect time to get to know the most important muscle in your body, and improve your relationship with it. Your heart is a powerful machine, pumping oxygen rich blood to your brain and other organs and transporting waste and carbon dioxide out. Taking care of your heart is one of the most important things you can do, and one of the most beneficial to your overall health and happiness.

More than 1 million Americans suffer from heart attacks each year, approximately half of them dying. Increased risk of heart failure and heart disease are influenced by a number of factors, not all of which we can control, such as age and race. However you can lower your risk through healthy eating and exercise habits. When plaque, a build up of cholesterol and other material, grows in your arteries, it can lead to blockages in blood flow and a loss of flexibility in the heart muscles, which can be potentially fatal. To manage this, try a few heart-healthy diet tips, including limiting your intake of saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol by choosing lean meats, such as poultry and fish. Fish are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower your risk as well. Whole-grain and high-fiber foods can also help lower your blood cholesterol levels. Maintaining a balanced heart-healthy diet that is high in fruits and vegetables is essential to all aspects of health, supplying your body with the vitamins, minerals, and fiber it needs without the calories it doesn’t. Regular exercise is also extremely important for maintaining cardio-vascular health, and the American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity five days a week. This includes running, biking, swimming and any other physical activity that gets you out of the chair and your blood pumping. The heart is a muscle after all, and you can make it stronger through exercise. Women have just as much if not more risk of heart disease, despite common belief, with 1 in 3 U.S. women living with heart disease today. Removing habits such as smoking and binge drinking from your life, as well as maintaining a healthy weight are incredibly important for a fit and healthy heart. But what about a happy heart?

We often look at the heart and the mind as two opposing components of our body, two equal but opposite forces that combine to give us life and conscience. But in reality they are two sides of the same coin, and in fact are more inter-connected than we may know. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that clinically depressed women had more than twice the risk of other women to suffer sudden cardiac death. Another study found that men who were aggressive and angry in their day-to-day lives (as opposed to professionally aggressive) had a 19% greater risk of coronary heart disease than those with a lighter demeanor. The idea of the connection between stress and heart health is certainly not new, but the clear associations between chronic stress and strain on the heart is becoming to clear, and potentially life-threatening to ignore. A 2007 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that patients who had a heart attack and then returned to a stressful job were twice as likely to have a second attack than those who viewed their jobs as more stress-free. And while you may not be able to quit your job, you may be able to change how you cope with it. Deep breathing exercises, meditation, and taking short walks outside when you are in stressful situations are important to building the awareness you need to realize when you are stressed, and taking the first steps to removing the stress from your life. Regular exercise will also reduce your stress, and help reduce your risk of cardiac diseases as discussed earlier. Getting enough sleep is also extremely important for not just regulating stress, but avoiding heart risk in general, especially for women. A 2008 study from Duke University showed a consistent correlation between poor sleeping habits and higher levels of risk factors for heart disease and diabetes in women.

While we all have stress, how we manage it defines our ability to stay fit and productive in our daily lives. That’s why this month you should examine your choices carefully, and choose ones that will build upon and reinforce a healthy and active lifestyle. Take the time out of your day to exercise, sleep, and eat right. Those choices will directly affect your capacity to have a strong and healthy heart, and therefore will lead to a longer and happier life.