With the icy patches of winter behind us and the snow-blower mercifully holed-up again in its shed, even the crabbiest among us would be hard-pressed not to smile at the bright sun, mild temps and feeling of renewal that is spring on Long Island.
And although heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., with over 80% of heart problems preventable, what better time than spring to assess and improve on some of our heart-healthy habits and routines.
Spring is the perfect time for a fresh start and the opportunity to get back in motion.
Here, Stony Brook Medicine cardiologist and advanced heart failure specialist, Edlira Tam, DO, has seven solid suggestions to help you stay heart-healthy — not only through the spring, but all year long…
1. Add Some Spring to Your Step
It’s all too easy during the winter months to morph into a total couch potato (Do I really have to get up for the remote?), but whether it’s taking a walk, cycling, gardening or “green exercise” — physical activity in the outdoors — getting some movement into your day can help spring you forward toward better heart health and improve your overall well-being.
- Researchers have found that living a sedentary lifestyle can put you at increased risk for heart disease.
- The American Heart Association notes that the simplest, most positive change you can make to improve your heart health is to start walking.
- Strive for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week, of moderate movement. Spread the 30 minutes out into more bite-sized 10-minute chunks and still reap the benefits. Leash up Fido, park on the far side of the parking lot, tap a neighbor for a walk or bike ride around the block…
- If you will be outside during the peak sun of the day, be sure to tote along plenty of water and to apply sunscreen 30 minutes before you head out.
- Listen to your body. If you aren’t used to regular exercise, are over 50 or have questions about your heart health, see your doctor before participating in any strenuous activities.
2. Go Green — and Red and Orange
Spring is a great time to welcome more seasonal fruits and vegetables into your diet. Not just fresh and flavorful, the emerging rainbow of asparagus, peas, carrots, lettuce and strawberries —to name just a few — are heart-healthy, as well.
- To help reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke and ensure that you are getting the diverse mix of phytonutrients — disease fighting compounds — each variety of colorful fruit and vegetable offers, aim for 4-5 servings daily.
- To follow a heart-healthy eating pattern, be sure to stick with the outer aisles of the supermarket — limiting processed foods and choosing fresh produce.
- If your cart finds its way into the inner (prepared foods) aisles, limit or avoid those items with saturated and trans fat, added sugars and/or sodium listed near the top of the label.
3. Stay Well Hydrated
As summer approaches and spring temperatures start to climb, getting enough to drink is important not just as a welcome thirst quencher, but as a critical component of your heart healthy habits. Drinking plenty of water not only regulates your body temperature, it helps your heart to pump more easily and keeps your organs functioning properly.
“Simply put, if you’re well-hydrated, your heart doesn’t have to work as hard,” advises Dr. Tam. “This is especially important for those with an existing heart condition or at high risk for heart disease.”
- As a rule of thumb, try for the familiar 8 cups or so of water daily. Choose herbal teas and fresh vegetable juices over coffee, fruit juices (high in sugar) or soft drinks.
- The ability to sense thirst can decrease as we age, so if you’re over 60, it is important to monitor your water intake.
- About 20 percent of our water intake comes from the foods we eat. A warm weather diet that emphasizes salads and fruits can both satisfy hunger and provide extra fluid. Strawberries, watermelon, peaches, cucumbers, celery, tomatoes, peppers and spinach, are all fruits and vegetables that are 90 percent or more water.
- Some common heart medications such as ace inhibitors, beta blockers and diuretics can make heart patients more sensitive to rising temperatures and can increase hydration needs.
4. Connect With Others
In addition to the more familiar risk factors like blood pressure, cholesterol, exercise and diet, recent research indicates that relationships and social connections can help create a heart-healthy mix as well. Studies have even shown that loneliness can be as damaging to your heart and blood vessels as smoking, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
“Hormones released as a natural stress response are known to harm blood vessels or cause blood pressure to spike,” says Dr. Tam. “Although the reasons are not yet clearly understood, positive relationships can have a beneficial effect on the brain, in turn reducing the detrimental stress response.”
- Spring can present exciting opportunities to participate in people-connecting clubs, sports, hobbies or volunteering. Researchers say that those with satisfying social connections tend to live longer and recover more quickly from heart attacks and other health problems.
- Older adults who volunteered at least four hours a week saw their high blood pressure drop by 40%.
5. Beware of Springtime Allergies
For most hay fever (allergic rhinitis) sufferers, sensitivity to airborne grass and tree pollen is mainly a sniffling, sneezing and coughing nuisance from about April to June. New research, however, has found a possible link between these allergens and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
“While the evidence is, here again, not conclusive about the link between allergies and heart disease, that old adage, ‘Better safe than sorry,’ comes to mind,” says Dr. Tam. “It might be advisable for those with pollen allergies to steer clear of any potential inflammation.”
- To lessen allergen exposure, avoid being outdoors on windy days, especially from mid-morning to mid-afternoon when pollen counts can be highest; keep doors and windows closed and run the A/C; change your clothes and take a shower after being outside.
6. Get Enough ZZZs
If the shorter and darker days of winter have thrown your sleep schedule a bit off track, a spring reboot might be a good idea when it comes to your heart health. It turns out that in addition to the many other worthwhile reasons for a good night's shut-eye, sleep is an essential part of keeping your heart healthy. One study found that adults over the age of 45 who slept fewer than six hours per night were about twice as likely to have a stroke or heart attack as people who slept between 6 to 8 hours.
- To help ensure a good night’s sleep: stick to a pretty regular sleep schedule, don’t stuff yourself or consume coffee late in the day; create a room that is cool, dark and quiet; and as tempting as it might be to use your computer or phone before bed, these devices have been shown to interfere with sleep by suppressing the sleep hormone melatonin.
7. Know Your Numbers
Spring is a great time to check in with your doctor to discuss any health concerns you might have and to make sure you’re up to date with your recommended health screenings and immunizations. Knowing your numbers and your risk factors are an important part of heart health, especially before engaging in warm weather outdoor activities.
- Some guidelines: BMI (healthy weight indicator): 18.5 to 24.9 and a waist measurement of 35 inches or less; Blood Pressure (BP): 120/80 or below; Blood Sugar/Diabetes risk (fasting blood glucose): 100 mg/dLor less; “Good” Cholesterol (HDL): 50 and above; “Bad” Cholesterol (LDL): 100 or below; Triglycerides: 150 or below.
Put Your Heart Health First
If you are at risk or if someone in your family has a heart condition, it’s important to schedule a visit with a cardiologist for preventive care. Our cardiologists can help you improve your heart health and/or prevent the progression of cardiovascular disease with a comprehensive heart disease risk assessment and treatment options.
Do something good for your own heart health by taking a free heart health assessment now.
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