Love Your Heart: Cardiac Health and You
For centuries, human beings across cultures have associated the heart with love and romance. Once thought to be the seat of the soul, even though our understanding of anatomy and psychology has advanced, we’ve still held onto the heart as a symbol of affection. We click a heart button to like things on social media, we send emoji with hearts for eyes in texts, and we have a whole holiday built around red heart shapes for chocolate and cards and giving gifts to our friends and partners. Hearts are a major part of all our lives—in fact, we literally could not exist without them! The heart keeps your blood circulating and oxygenated, bringing nutrients and removing toxins from every part of the body. So what’s the best way to truly “heart” our hearts?
One of the most important things for heart health is regular exercise. Studies are showing that a sedentary lifestyle is as harmful or worse than smoking cigarettes—and we know how bad those are! Doctors recommend 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of heavy aerobic exercise—you can break that up into chunks throughout the week if you have limited time. “Aerobic” refers to exercise that increases your heart rate and respiration for a sustained amount of time—this strengthens your heart muscle, lungs and lung capacity, and can be beneficial for diabetes management and mental health. Anaerobic exercise involves short bursts of intense effort—like weightlifting or sprinting, and is more useful for muscle gain and weight loss. A mix of both is best, depending on your personal fitness goals, but aerobic exercise is what keeps your heart and lungs in the best shape they can be. Even just getting out and walking can be helpful—try walking just a little bit faster than you can comfortably carry on a conversation. That’s raising your heart rate and respiration!
Speaking of weight loss—we all know one’s size or number on a scale doesn’t directly correlate with that person’s physical health, right? While being overweight or obese isn’t good for you and can place extra strain on your body, it’s not itself the best measure of health (and certainly has nothing to do with one’s “goodness” or moral value!). Thin people can be unhealthy, and heavier people can have excellent blood pressure and be active. It’s most important that you’re trying to perform healthy behaviors and eat a varied, balanced diet. Whatever the body you have, it’s the only body you’ll get, and every body deserves love and acceptance—we wouldn’t get anywhere without them. The interplay between mind and body is complex, and reducing stress no matter what form it takes or where it comes from is an important part of health. Stress may not directly cause heart disease—it’s still being studied—but it contributes to unhealthy behaviors (like overeating, smoking, or drinking too much alcohol or coffee) that can raise blood pressure and blood cholesterol. When you’re having a terrible day, try to do something like going for a walk or meditating (there are even apps for that now)—the beer and the cigarette may provide short-term relief but long-term negative consequences. Loving yourself means looking out for the future and giving your body the best care you can!
The saying goes “You can’t outrun a bad diet”, and that’s true—eating a variety of healthy foods is the most basic thing you can do for your heart. Think of food as fuel for your body—because it is! Eating a rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables is a great place to start—literally, make sure to get your fresh produce in a variety of colors, as each provides a different set of vitamins and minerals. While salt has its place in culinary chemistry as a taste enhancer, too much sodium is not good for your heart—it raises blood pressure, so your heart must work much harder to pump blood. Too much sugar is also harmful and can lead to health problems like diabetes; also, while fat is in fact necessary on some levels for our bodies to function, too much fat (especially saturated or trans fats) can raise blood cholesterol, leading to plaque buildup in your arteries that can narrow them and strain your heart (or even lead to a heart attack). Make sure to get enough protein, and if you eat red meat try to keep it to a few times per week; plant-based protein is often lower in calories and cholesterol and just as delicious. Your heart appreciates hydration, too—drinking plenty of water helps aid in weight loss as well as lowering blood pressure, and often if we feel hungry we’re really feeling thirsty.
So you have to eat healthy all the time, exercise every day, and drop all of your fun bad habits immediately and always, right? Wrong! While these are certainly laudable goals, we are all of us only human, after all, and every human has a day where they just can’t make it to the gym or they’re not feeling well or that tub of gelato looks like a really great idea for dinner. If you have a cheat day or a lazy day, don’t beat yourself up! Remember how stress is bad for you? It’s important to be able to accept yourself even on days when you watched three hours of Netflix instead of going for a run. (Don’t make it a habit, of course!) Perfection, after all, is truly the enemy of the good. While we all should strive for perfection, we all will fall short once in awhile, and being able to encourage ourselves and each other on off days is one of the best habits of all. If you love your heart, it’ll love you back and keep you alive for as long as possible.