An old proverb says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” One of the best ways to strengthen your spirit is to keep your heart strong enough to carry you through life with cheer.
“And it is never, ever too late to take care of your heart,” emphasizes cardiologist and researcher Mary Ann Peberdy, MD, head of the post-cardiac arrest program at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center. “There are simple things anyone can do, right now, to get on track.”
Here are the first three steps toward keeping your heart healthy for years to come:
If You’re a Smoker: Quit
You’ve heard it before, but now’s the time to kick the habit for good. Smoking increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, raises blood pressure and heart rate, and can cause blood vessel abnormalities that contribute to blockages.
Fortunately, says Peberdy, once you stop smoking, your body will quickly thank you for kicking the habit. “20 minutes after you put down your cigarette, your blood pressure and heart rate go back to normal,” says Peberdy. “Within 12 hours, your carbon monoxide levels drop. Within three months, you’ll be taking deeper breaths, and your shortness of breath will noticeably decrease. And within one year, you will have lowered your risk of cardiovascular disease by 50 percent.”
And whenever possible, stay clear of secondhand smoke, says Peberdy; it’s associated with a 30 percent higher risk of heart attack.
The American Heart Association recommends two and a half hours per week of moderate to intensive aerobic exercise. (Sounds like a lot, but if you break it down, it’s only about 30 minutes a day!) To find your target heart rate, subtract your age from the number 220. The result is the number of beats per minute you should aim for.
“But you don’t have to be that compulsive,” says Peberdy. “Just exercise hard enough to break a sweat; you should feel like you’re actually doing something. You can accomplish that with brisk walking.” Has it been a while since you’ve gotten off the sofa? Start slow -- but do start. “The main point about exercise,” says Peberdy, “is that doing anything is better than doing nothing.”
Know Your Numbers
To get an idea of your overall cardiac health, it’s important to find out your body mass index (BMI), blood pressure and cholesterol and triglyceride numbers.
BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight. (Find yours online at sites like this.) If your BMI falls in the overweight-to-obese range, it’s time to make some lifestyle changes. “Extra weight is closely linked with high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, all of which contribute to a greater risk of cardiovascular disease,” says Peberdy. And keep in mind: The higher your number, the greater the danger.
An elevated BP is one of the biggest contributors to coronary artery disease, says Peberdy. A normal blood pressure is considered lower than 120/80; if you’re at that level or slightly higher, you may have pre-hypertension -- a sign that you could develop high blood pressure if you don’t take steps to lower your number. While medication is sometimes necessary, Peberdy says that losing as little as 10 pounds may be all it takes to get your BP back to normal.
Cholesterol consists of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) --“bad” cholesterol -- which contributes to heart disease; and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) -- “good” cholesterol -- that protects against the disease. Knowing your cholesterol numbers will give you an indication of your cardiac risk. Get yours checked with a simple blood test. What you’ll want to see is an HDL rate greater than 50 mg/dL (above that is “awesome,” says Peberdy) and LDL levels lower than 130 mg/dL if you’re young and healthy. As for triglycerides, anything over 150 mg/dL could be indicative of diabetes, which is a big risk factor for heart disease in women.
True, sometimes heart disease risk is a matter of genetics. But making healthy choices can still make a difference even if heart problems run in your family. “The take-away here,” says Peberdy, “is that it’s never too late to take control."
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