Heart disease is currently the leading cause of death in the United States. The heart is known as one of the most important organs within the body as it supplies our tissues with oxygen and nutrients carried thorough our blood stream. It’s strength and health can play a large role in our overall wellbeing, as well as our ability to physically perform day-to-day functions. Because of this, it is vital that we take care of our heart as best we can in order to live a long life of quality and enjoyment. But how do we best ensure we are taking care of it?
One area we must pay attention to is nutrition. Food is fuel for our bodies, and what we choose to put into our bodies matters! It is best that we consume a varied diet of lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. Proteins should include legumes and mixed nuts as these are filled with fiber and also contain minerals such as selenium and magnesium. Carbohydrates from whole foods, meaning those that have few ingredients and come from plants, are considered the gold standard as they also contain fiber and additional nutrients. This includes fruits and vegetables such as potatoes, greens, and grains like lentils. Fats are necessary for our health, and it’s best to consume foods and oils that are liquid at room temperature. Healthy fat choices include avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, and fatty fish or fish oil supplements. Try avoiding large amounts of saturated/trans fat, commonly found in baked goods and packaged processed foods. These choices typically contain higher levels of salt and sugar too, which should be limited. Eating in these ways can support our heart health by keeping our arteries clear of plaque and lowering our risk for heart attack and stroke.
Another area that demands our attention is physical activity. It is common to hear about how important it is to stay active yet so many people do not prioritize movement each day. Regular exercise helps to keep our hearts strong and our bodies physically able to move in many ways. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity movement over the course of the week. This might look like a brisk walk, riding a bike, dancing, or gardening. More vigorous activities include running, jumping rope, swimming laps, and hiking uphill. As we increase intensity we will breathe a bit harder and sweat more, but we are also challenging our heart and becoming stronger!
It is important to know where your own heart health stands, and we can monitor it by getting a blood test to show our biomarkers for heart health. These include blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol/triglycerides. Blood pressure is measured in two numbers, the top being the pressure in your arteries when your heart squeezes (Systolic), and the bottom number being the pressure in your arteries when the heart is relaxed (Diastolic). Normal blood pressure is considered to be less than 120/80. Our heart rate measures the amount of times our heart beats in a minute while at rest. A lower rate is indicative of higher cardiovascular fitness as the heart is strong and doesn’t have to pump as much to get blood around the body.
Cholesterol is commonly thought to be ‘bad’ for us, yet it is something that we NEED for many body functions. It IS important, however, to pay attention to the sources we are getting it from as the type of cholesterol consumed can affect our health. High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is our ‘happy’ cholesterol. This absorbs and redirects bad cholesterol to our liver where it’s removed from our system. Higher numbers of HDL indicate a lower risk of heart disease and stroke. Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is our ‘lousy’ cholesterol. Too much of this begins to cause plaque buildup within our arteries, which can increase risk of heart disease and stroke. Another biomarker to watch is triglycerides. Triglycerides are the most common type of fat within our bodies. When we consume calories and don’t use them as energy, they get transformed into triglycerides and are stored as body fat to use at a later date. We can avoid excess body fat by ensuring we get enough physical movement thorough the day and by reaching for protein rich foods over carbohydrate rich foods to fuel ourselves. High levels of triglycerides are also associated with coronary artery disease. It is important to note that lifestyle plays a role in heart health as well. Research shows that use of tobacco products and smoking are very problematic for cardiovascular health and should be avoided.
Through paying attention to and prioritizing heart health, we can make sure we are treating our bodies in a way that they need to be, in order to work properly for our entire lives. We must remember that we are nothing without our health, and our quality of life begins and ends with our choices and the way we invest in ourselves.