How is your heart?

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Love has been written about, sung about, and personified in art through the ages. It is a very well known human emotion, and with Valentines Day in particular we will be seeing the symbol for love everywhere.

There is no better time than Valentines day to think about our hearts, and ask the question whether we are taking care of our heart-health as well as we should.

According to the American Heart Association, there are 5 essential areas you should pay attention to in order to keep your heart healthy. Some of the facts might surprise you:

You have heard it over and over again. Less salt, Less saturated fat, No sugar etc.
Generally when you improve your diet you lower your risk for heart disease by lowering your high cholesterol level, blood pressure and blood sugar. Eating right also prevents obesity, which is a large strain on a person’s heart. It is easier said than done though, and it can be daunting when one tries to change eating habits, but the key is to find and stick to a balanced diet. Eliminating carbs or fats, following fad diets and starvation diets are not the healthy way to go, and can actually do more harm than good. The most important thing that you can do is to eat balanced, and minimize or all together avoid processed foods.

Make smart choices when you go grocery shopping by following this simple guide Harvard Medical School has put together:

Heart Healthy Foods Table

See the complete guide for more details.

Balance is of absolute importance, and no single nutrient or vitamin should be singled out or lacking from your diet. Key Foods work together for your optimal health.

Healthy diet is only half the battle won, next you need to get active.

Heart disease is one of the top killers of Americans, and exercise can effectively help prevent the onset of this disease and other diseases. Exercising regularly helps create well-balanced healthy glucose, insulin and leptin levels, which is essential for healthy heart function.

Endurance or cardio training is the way most people think and go with to benefit their heart health, but this is actually not the correct way to benefit your heart at all. In fact, research has shown that endurance training, like marathon running, can increase your risk of a heart attack, instead of lowering it.

Research by Dr. Arthur Siegel, director of Internal Medicine at Harvard’s McLean Hospital found that long-distance running leads to high levels of inflammation in the heart, that can trigger cardiac events. According to fitness expert Phil Campbell, you need to work all your muscle fibers to get the benefits for your heart, and this can be effectively achieved with high intensity interval training. What every human being has are slow and fast twitch muscles, and both need to be activated to benefit your heart.

Cardio training only activates your slow twitch muscles. Activating the fast and super-fast muscles is what aids in production of therapeutic levels of growth hormone. That is why high intensity training in small bursts, such as sprinting, will do way more for your heart.
What is also important is to make sure you get sufficient recovery time in between workouts. The general consensus is to do your high intensity workout only 3 times a week, and mix it up with different kinds of workouts to keep variety in your workout.

Increasing your physical activity should help you lose the extra pounds, but it doesn’t hurt to pay attention to your weight/mass.
You can begin by calculating your BMI (Body Mass Index), which should give some indication, but should not be the only way you assess this. BMI could be incorrect for some individuals. It is always advisable to see a health/fitness pro who will take all the important factors into consideration.

If you do need to loose a few pounds to be at a healthy weight, the best way to do this is to calculate how many calories you need for your activity level, and have a dietary professional put you on the right track. Generally, to lose 1 pound per week, you need to bring down your calorie intake by 500 calories per day.
The opposite could also be true, and you might be underweight, which is also not healthy and you might need to put on some healthy weight.

The following tips will help to maintain your healthy weight:

1. Plan your meals in advance. Keeping to a meal plan that stays more or less the same, will help to keep your calorie intake constant.

2. Weigh yourself often. This will keep you on track better than only measuring every once in a while.

3. Build your lean muscle. Lean Muscle increases your metabolism, which in turn burns more calories, even when you are not actively working out.

4. Include more dairy in your diet. Three to four servings of low-fat dairy per day will help maintain your healthy weight.

5. Eat Breakfast. It is the most important meal of the day, and it does curb overeating later in the day. Keep to healthy choices like oatmeal, fruit and yoghurt.

Smoking cigarettes or cigars, puts you at a higher risk of illness and death from heart attack, stroke and other diseases including:

• All types of cancers
• Chronic lung diseases and infections
• Congestive heart failure
• Peripheral vascular disease

Constant exposure to other people’s tobacco smoke increases your risk to all these diseases and complications too, however when you do decide to quit smoking or end your exposure to it your risk of heart disease and stroke is cut in half within one year, and it continues to decline.
What tends to be a concern to many health professionals, is that social smokers or passive smokers who wrongfully believe that, it is harmless, since it is only one or two once in a while, however various studies into the subject have thrown some light on the subject of whether it is relevant or not when you are a social smoker.
With cancer the risk with smoking is proportionate to the amount smoked, though not smoking is still better than occasional smoking. With Heart Disease, the risk is not proportionate to the amount smoked. It is actually much higher, proportionally, for the first one or two cigarettes of the day – hence the risk from passive smoking.

Laboratory evidence suggests this is because toxins in tobacco smoke peak at low levels of exposure, increasing the stickiness of the blood (the tendency of the platelets to aggregate) and inflaming the arteries, increasing the risk of thrombosis – a blood clot that can trigger a heart attack. What applies to passive smokers, of course, also applies to occasional smokers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta warned that “30 minutes of exposure to other people’s smoke might be enough to trigger a fatal heart attack in people at risk of heart disease”.

Bottom line, is that you have to ask yourself, what is more important? The few minutes of “enjoying” inhalation of smoke and toxins… and feeling social? Or a lifetime of being healthy?

There has not been enough research to determine how stress affects the heart and contributes to heart disease, but stress definitely affects behaviors that contribute to the disease, such as drinking, drug use, smoking and overeating
All that is know is that stressful situations can trigger the release of adrenaline, which in turn causes your blood pressure to rise. If you live in a constantly stressfulvsituation or feeling, you will start to lean towards the wrong coping mechanisms, such as smoking and drinking, which in turn, affects your heart.

The good news is that you have control over your stress levels, and there are healthy ways to cope.

Firstly, identify what it is in your life that makes you stressed. One great suggestion is to start a Stress Journal. Keep track of every time you are stressed and how you coped with it. It will start showing a pattern, and you will be more aware of how to change your coping mechanisms.

Secondly, look at your coping mechanisms, and identify whether they are healthy or not healthy, and whether they work.

Unhealthy ways include:

+ Smoking and Drinking
+ over- or under eating
+ watching too much TV or surfing the internet
+ Avoiding friends, family or activities
+ Using drugs
+ Angry outbursts projected onto others

Thirdly, learn the better and healthier ways to cope with stress. The best ways are to either change the stressful situation, or to change how you react to the situation

Either way, if you reduce and cope with your stress, you will avoid the unhealthy ways that lead to heart disease.

Changing your lifestyle is never the easiest thing to do, but in the end it is the most rewarding. Nothing tastes or feels as good as being healthy, and it is always when we have lost our health, that we realize we should have taken better care of it.

Let’s not neglect our hearts, but make sure we stay informed on how to keep them healthy.

And on a side note… Dark chocolate is good for the heart, in small amount though. Happy Valentines day!

The following links offer great resources and more details:

American Heart Association

10 Best Foods for your Heart

Heart Smart Grocery Shopping

Exercise may prevent heart disease

Stress Management


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