Your heart is a powerful muscle, continually pumping blood through 60,000 miles of arteries, veins, and capillaries to sustain all the activities that keep your body functioning. The adult heart pumps about 5 quarts of blood each minute and beats about 100,000 times a day. We take our heart for granted because it is always working in the background, but it deserves the same effort that we devote to strengthening and maintaining the muscles in our backs, legs, and arms.
Heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S. for both men and women, is caused by a combination of genetics, gender, aging, and lifestyle. While we cannot do much about our age and family history, we can control two of the major contributing factors: smoking, and the combination of inactivity with eating the wrong foods.
The condition of your circulatory system directly influences your heart. Cholesterol buildup narrows the arteries, leading to hardening of the arteries and the formation of blood clots. Your heart has to work harder to pump blood, and your blood pressure goes up. Diseases like diabetes weaken blood vessels and make it harder for the heart to do its job. The keys to a healthy circulatory system are good nutrition and physical activity.
Begin caring for your heart today. Heart disease takes years to develop. Heart disease can be minimized and even prevented by adopting a healthy, active lifestyle early in life and maintaining it.
Here are the most important things you can do to take care not only of your heart, but of the hearts you love:
- Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Certain types of fish, beans, other low-fat sources of protein can reduce your risk of heart disease. Consume less red meat, dairy, and processed foods. Try to eat between five and ten servings of vegetables and fruits every day. Learn to prepare and enjoy meals made from fresh ingredients. Use as little salt as possible in your cooking. Fats from avocado, nuts, olives and, olive oil help to lower bad cholesterol.
- Be active. Too often, work or school requires sitting at a desk for many hours a day. Find hobbies and interests that involve physical activity. Teach your family to limit the amount of time they spend in front of a computer or a TV. Encourage your children to play outdoors. Go for walks. Physical activity strengthens the cardiovascular system, and muscle movement circulates fluids throughout your tissues, moving waste products into your bloodstream so that your body can get rid of them.
- Stop smoking or using tobacco of any kind. The carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke replaces some of the oxygen in your blood, forcing your heart to work harder to supply enough oxygen to your tissues and increasing your blood pressure and heart rate. Chemicals in tobacco damage your heart and blood vessels. Even occasional smoking is harmful. Worse, your second-hand smoke hurts your children and the people around you.
- Exercise. Adults should have at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, most days of the week. Aerobic exercise increases endurance and keeps the heart pumping at a higher rate for extended periods. Strength training and stretching exercises like yoga and pilates also help by reducing cholesterol. If you have already been diagnosed with heart disease, your doctor can help you plan an exercise program.
- Relax. Stress contributes to heart disease. Control stress by identifying the situations that cause you anxiety and taking practical steps to limit them.
- Laugh every day. Develop a sense of humor. Laughter improves blood flow, and the beneficial effects of watching a funny movie last for 24 hours.
- Invest in your social life. Studies have shown that positive interactions with family members and a strong social support network are both associated with heart health. Work on establishing healthy emotional relationships.
- Monitor your heart health. Check your cholesterol levels and blood pressure at regularly scheduled wellness visits. Watch your weight. If your doctor has prescribed medication to treat high cholesterol, high blood pressure or a heart condition, take it as instructed and keep up with regular check-ups.
- Learn the symptoms of a heart attack. Seek medical attention promptly if you or someone near you experiences pain or a squeezing sensation in the chest.
It is never too late to start caring for your heart! The benefits of exercise and a nutritious diet can be felt within a week. At any age, a healthy lifestyle change can reverse some of the conditions that lead to heart disease, and add years to your life.