As we enter 2021, many patients have made New Year’s commitments to engage in a healthier lifestyle and lower their risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes – particularly since this last year has been such a challenge with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many patients I know have gained weight and gotten out of their routines because of health club closures, working from home in front of a screen and stress eating.
This time of year, I see many patients who are struggling with winter doldrums that make positive lifestyle changes like fighting heart disease feel overwhelming. The important thing to remember is that small, incremental changes in routine and lifestyle can have a big impact when you keep at it.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women in the U.S., with the CDC reporting more than 600,000 deaths from heart disease every year. But there is hope even in a bleak statistic like this: It means that simple lifestyle changes can combat one of the deadliest diseases in our country.
If you already have cardiovascular disease, hypertension or diabetes, you can lower your risk for heart attack or stroke with some simple medical interventions and lifestyle changes. This will also reduce your risk for hospitalization or an expensive medical procedure down the road.
Building a healthier heart has three basic components: How you move, what you eat and when you get checkups. Here are a few basic tips for a healthier heart:
Make a plan to exercise. For many of my patients, the pandemic has added challenges to maintaining a healthy heart. Working and learning from home has made people more sedentary by removing commutes, social activities and closing gyms. That’s why it’s important to build movement into your everyday routine.
Stand up. The more you sit, the higher your risk for heart problems. Try standing when you’d normally sit, like when you’re using a laptop for work or school. I even suggest building an activity into a meeting to get people up and out of their seats. Some of my patients have incorporated a standing desk while walking on a treadmill in front of their computer screen or talking on the phone.
Break up your day with a walk. One of my staff members told me that their kids were having a difficult time paying attention to online school. I suggested that the kids take a one-hour walk each day to break the monotony and get some fresh air. It helped them focus when they got back inside.
There’s growing evidence that every step you take counts toward a healthier heart. Last year, the Framingham Heart Study found that every 1,000 steps taken by participants lowered their risk for cardiovascular issues over the following decade.
Exercise in the morning. Planning a workout schedule each week with specific days and times helps to ensure you are getting the consistent exercise that contributes to a healthy heart. For many people, it’s better if exercise can be done first thing in the morning as opposed to waiting until after work when you are tired and ready to kick back and relax from the day.
Make small changes for healthier meals. Many patients commit to the latest diet fad but are unable to keep them up because the changes are difficult to sustain and too restrictive. The truth is healthy eating starts small. You don’t have to reinvent what you eat all at once. Make one or two changes at a time. As soon as you are used to those, make another one or two. Over time, all these small changes can add up and make a big difference in your caloric intake and health.
Start with a few of these basic tips for healthier meals:
Add one or two servings of fruits and vegetables to your day. Eat a variety of fruit and vegetable servings every day. Dark green, deep orange and yellow fruits and vegetables are especially nutritious. Examples include spinach, carrots, peaches and berries.
Eat a variety of grain products every day. Include whole-grain foods that have lots of fiber and nutrients. Examples of whole grains include oats or granola, whole wheat bread and brown rice.
Eat fish at least two times each week. Oily fish, which contain omega-3 fatty acids, are best for your heart. These fish include salmon, mackerel, lake trout, herring and sardines.
Limit saturated fat. To limit saturated fat, try to choose the following foods: lean meats and meat alternatives like beans or tofu; fish; vegetables; beans; nuts; nonfat and low-fat dairy products; and polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats, like canola and olive oils, to replace butter or saturated fats found in animal protein.
If you’re older than 40, get regular heart checkups. With this last year’s COVID-19 pandemic, many patients have neglected regular health checkups. Routine screenings with your primary care provider can help you catch early warning signs of heart disease, identify things you can do to improve your heart health and let you set specific blood pressure, weight and lifestyle goals.
According to the American Heart Association, blood pressure over 120/80 and BMI of 25 or higher are both linked to increased risk for heart disease and stroke. Regular checkups also allow your provider to screen for high cholesterol, diabetes and hypertension so you can deal with any heart issues before they become major problems.
A healthy heart is an attainable goal. Simple and sustained changes in lifestyle help prevent heart attacks and strokes, reduce your chances of dementia and help you deal with winter stress. Remember that the goal is prevention, not perfection. Start small with a walk or an apple, and your heart will thank you.
Dr. Jeff Markin is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Veradale Medical Center.
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