7 Steps for a Healthier Heart

Valentine’s Day is a holiday for the proverbial romantic heart, but with the coming of American Heart Month in February, is also a good time to give the physical one some TLC.

Thanks in large part to our less-than-healthy diet and exercise habits, heart disease is the No. 1 killer in America, and it kills more women each year than all of the various types of cancer combined.

“The good news is that lifestyle changes, particularly when enacted early, can prevent heart attacks and strokes,” says Dr. Michael Fogli with Oklahoma Cardiovascular Consultants in Tulsa.

“People make broad resolutions for health and diet in the new year that aren’t very trackable,” says Nellie Kelly with the American Heart Association.

“We might have made ‘get healthier’ our New Year’s resolution, or maybe it was ‘lose weight’ – those aren’t very specific. It’s hard to tell if they’re doing things that make a difference in the prevention of heart disease.”

A better, longer life, lower health care costs and a healthier heart are just on the other side of these seven common-sense tips – or, as the American Heart Association calls them, Life’s Simple 7.

1 Get Active

Here’s the exciting part about turning off the TV and getting off the couch: It doesn’t take much to make an impact on the risk factors for heart disease. In fact, a mere 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week does the trick – that’s little more than 20 minutes per day.

“One of easiest things people can do is walk,” Kelly says. “It’s free, and it’s something you can do with a friend. Plus, it turns out that walking 10 minutes three times a day – say, during your breaks at work – is almost as good as walking 30 minutes all at once.”

“You don’t have to belong to a health club,” Fogli adds. “Buy a used treadmill or exercise bike off of Craigslist and use it for 30 to 45 minutes while watching the evening news or your favorite TV show, and do it at least five days each week.”

If a healthy heart and the promise of a long life aren’t enough of an incentive to exercise, try Zumba, or take a ballroom dancing class.

“The best kind of exercise is the kind you’ll actually do,” Kelly says.

Just be sure to consult your doctor before you start an exercise program, advises Dr. George Chrysant with INTEGRIS Heart Hospital, especially if you have a familial history of heart disease.

2 Control Cholesterol

Much of the work of preventing heart disease has to do with what we eat. When attempting to control cholesterol, opt for lean meats and ditch the fatty cuts of beef.

“Americans consume beef in huge quantities, and that is unhealthy,” says Dr. Lubna Wani with OU Physicians. “It’s high in cholesterol and it will increase your risk for heart disease. Follow the Mediterranean diet – get plenty of whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and nuts and replace fats in cooking with olive oil.”

Another way to control cholesterol is to know one’s numbers, Wani adds, and keep in mind that total cholesterol is not the number to know.

“There’s the bad, or LDL cholesterol and then there’s the good, triglycerides. We need to know both so that we can keep them in a healthy range. For a person without a history of high cholesterol in the family, get a baseline cholesterol check at age 30,” Wani says. “Get it done sooner if there is a family history.”

3 Eat Better

“It’s about fruits and veggies, and fiber is very important,” Kelly says. “Unrefined whole grains can help the body to lower blood cholesterol, and cutting back on foods containing partially hydrogenated oils reduces trans fats.”

“Many of us are eating better but are still eating too much,” Chrysant says. “You can eat the healthiest thing you want, but if you eat 10 servings of it, that still adds up to a lot of calories.”

The American Heart Association has whittled some healthful eating tips down to brass tacks: Less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day; less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day and fish on the menu twice per week.

Fogli adds that men should consume 35 grams of fiber each day, and women 25 grams. Substitute the usual bagel or donut with high-fiber cereal in non-fat yogurt with fresh strawberries, he says, and swap mashed potatoes and French fries for a spinach salad or hummus.

4 Manage Blood Pressure

Known as the silent killer, high blood pressure is one of the leading risk factors that can lead to heart disease.

“High blood pressure is almost universally present in those with coronary disease,” Chrysant says.

“Your blood pressure is an important number to know not just because high blood pressure means the heart is pumping harder, but because the blood vessels can be injured if blood is pumped through them at a pressure that’s higher than normal,” Kelly says. “The body then reacts as it does with any injury – it builds scar tissue. That scar tissue can contribute to hardened arteries and to blood clots.”

The number we all want to hear at our check-ups is 120/80, according to the AMA.

High sodium diets are associated with a higher chance of having a heart attack or stroke, especially if you already have high blood pressure, Fogli says. On average, Americans consume about two times the recommended daily amount.

Cut sodium intake by limiting processed and canned foods, sauces and salad dressings, chips and crackers and restaurant food. Consume instead fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meats, low-fat dairy products and season with herbs rather than salt, Fogli says.

Use www.mylifecheck.heart.org and www.heart360.org to help you track your numbers and start a conversation with your doctor, Kelly says.

5 Lose Weight

Oklahoma ranks sixth in the nation for obesity, another leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. and worldwide. Those with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater should focus on portion control and calorie reduction in their diets, Fogli says.

“You will need to consume 500 calories less than you normally do to lose one pound each week,” Fogli says. “For the average person, if you exercise regularly and eat four small meals a day, each containing 400 calories or less, you will get there.”

Here’s an example of what a 400-calorie meal looks like, from www.prevention.com as suggested by Fogli: a half-cup of dry oats, cooked; one-fourth cup of semisweet chocolate chips; and one cup of raspberries. Voila! Chocolate raspberry oatmeal – now that’s hard to argue with.

6 Reduce Blood Sugar

Diabetics are at twice the risk of heart disease than are the general population, and according to Wani, 40 percent of Oklahomans are diabetic.

Diet can go a long way to reduce blood sugar, Wani says. Nixing sodas and opting for water instead is a good first step.

“Some cardiovascular risk factors do not produce symptoms,” Fogli says. “You could have diabetes or very high blood pressure and cholesterol and not even know it until you have a stroke or heart attack.

“Get your fasting blood sugar and cholesterol checked at age 35 and your blood pressure checked at least once each year to determine if medication will help,” he says.

7 Stop Smoking

Cigarette smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the U.S., Fogli says, and Oklahoma ranks third in the nation for prevalence of tobacco use.

“The chemicals in cigarette smoke are blood vessel poison; there is no better way to put it,” Fogli says. “It’s amazing in our youth-obsessed culture how many people continue to smoke, which accelerates the aging process like nothing else.”

Cigarette smoking accelerates the build up of cholesterol in all arteries, including those that carry blood to our heart and brain.

“It’s an addiction, and it’s very hard to give up, but it’s not impossible,” Wani says. “Call 1.800.QUIT.NOW, try a nicotine patch, nicotine gum or even more tea or coffee, which is actually good for your heart in quantities less than five cups per day.”