You don’t have to run a marathon or climb Mount Everest to know the importance of a healthy heart. It’s about ease of daily activities, living life fully, and avoiding co-morbidities that can make a disease like COVID-19 even more dangerous. Fortunately, science knows a lot about how to prevent future heart problems.
“There are clear, simple steps everyone can take to decrease their risk of heart disease,” said Simone Bailey-Brown, MD, a preventive cardiologist at Rochester Regional Health's Sands-Constellation Heart Institute.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Every 40 seconds, someone in America has a heart attack and every 36 seconds, someone dies from cardiovascular disease.
Minimizing such risks is a matter of small but significant lifestyle habits, Dr. Bailey-Brown said. Here’s how:
Choose fruits, vegetables, and plant-based proteins such as legumes and nuts.
Avoid animal products, sugary or salty snacks, greasy foods, sugar-sweetened drinks, and refined carbohydrates.
“With people staying home more because of COVID-19, there’s a tendency to eat more out of boredom or stress, and many persons have gained weight,” Dr. Bailey-Brown said. “Instead, we could use the time to try out healthy new recipes. The food will taste better too.”
Aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise such as walking, hiking, biking, or swimming, at least five days a week. If you cannot commit to 30 minutes each day, do as much as you can, any amount is better than nothing.
If you are new to exercise, start with low-intensity activities such as walking, and gradually increase. If you already have heart disease, check with your doctor first and make sure it's safe for you to start.
“Treadmills and elliptical machines are great, but so are hiking shoes, cross-country skis, or a simple jump rope,” Dr. Bailey-Brown said. “Getting outside when weather permits can also lift your mood. Just remember to keep social distance and wear a mask within six feet of other people.”
Cigarette smoking is a significant risk factor for heart disease. If you smoke, quitting smoking is one of the most important things that you can do to decrease your risk of heart disease. Second-hand smoke increases your risk of heart disease by 25% – 30%, so it is important for persons in your household to quit smoking as well.
Blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood cholesterol levels are significant risk factors for heart disease. Make sure they’re well controlled—through diet and exercise or medication if necessary. For those with high blood pressure, consider investing in a blood pressure cuff to monitor numbers at home.
If you’re at a healthy weight now, try not to gain weight. If overweight, aim to shed some pounds. Excess weight increases risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol problems, and sleep apnea, which are all associated with heart disease.
Anxiety, depression, and poor sleep are all associated with heart disease. So try to get at least seven hours of sleep a night. Talk with your doctor about healthy ways to cope with stress.
Physicians are a fountain of knowledge about how to stay healthy. Just ask.
“As doctors, we’d much rather see our patients change their habits in small, consistent ways than to treat them for diseases that could have been avoided,” Dr. Bailey-Brown said. “After all, what we want most is to see our patients lead full, happy lives.”
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