First, we had the “Freshman 15.” Now we’ve got “COVID’s 19,” a reference to the extra weight many of us put on during the pandemic. But the world is opening back up, and medical experts say it’s the perfect time to reset our habits and get heart healthy.
“For many people staying healthy was very challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it really is a new day,” Dr. Sharonne N. Hayes, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Mayo Clinic and founder of the Women’s Heart Clinic, tells Yahoo Life. “I have been challenging my patients to think about either what they did prior to the pandemic that worked for them, or, if there has always been a struggle with exercise or a struggle with diet, this is the time to kind of turn that over and look for new opportunities.”
Need some inspiration? Check out these three easy-to-digest steps to improve your heart health.
#1 Pay attention to what’s on your plate
One simple way to get to a healthier weight and also keep your heart healthy is by taking a look at your diet — starting with cutting back on the amount of meat you eat. “If you're currently eating meat at most meals, I would start by trying to have meatless Mondays,” Dr. Nicole Harkin, a preventive cardiologist and founder of Whole Heart Cardiology in San Francisco, tells Yahoo Life. “Consider something like eggplant, cauliflower, tofu — all of which really sub well for meat products.”
While you’re cutting back on meat, Harkin recommends increasing your intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts and beans, which are packed with fiber, antioxidants and other important nutrients that benefit your heart. “Plant-based foods can help lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, improve our insulin resistance, decrease our weight and help us maintain a healthy heart,” says Harkin.
Plus, these heart healthy foods don’t have saturated fats, which can increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood. “This cholesterol gets transported through our bloodstream and if there's too much of it, it tends to get through into the blood vessel wall and get stuck and this starts to form a plaque,” Harkin explains. “If that plaque gets big enough, it can either block off the blood vessel entirely, causing chest pain, or it can rupture, causing a heart attack.”
#2 Get up and move
After all of those months of binging the latest Netflix series, now is the time to get off the couch and get moving. “Staying physically active is medicine,” states Hayes. “Eating less butter may not make you feel better, but moving more is the one thing I can say, ‘Hey, if you keep this up for four to six weeks, you’re going to have more energy, you’re going to sleep better, your moods are probably going to be better, your bones are going to be stronger and it’s going to help your heart.’”
And this doesn’t mean you need to run a marathon. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of activity per week, that’s about 20 minutes per day. Take a walk, climb some stairs or mix in some weights. “While there's lots of evidence about aerobic activity and the benefit on heart health, there's increasing evidence that strength training is also really good for our hearts,” says Harkin. “Strength training can either be dynamic resistance training like weightlifting or isometric training, which is like a plank.”
#3 Just sleep on it
On the flip side, you don’t even need to be awake to give your heart some TLC. That’s because while you sleep, both your heart rate and blood pressure naturally drop. This helps reduce the stress on your heart and allows it to rest and recuperate.
However, Harkin says when you’re sleep deprived or experience fragmented sleep, it can increase inflammation and create higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. To get the recommended seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, Harkin suggests that you set goals and stick to them. “Have some sort of sleep regularity, just like having a set bedtime routine for our kids,” she suggests. “Dim the lights a few hours before bed. Try not to have anything to eat two to three hours before you go to sleep. Also limit blue light before sleeping. All of these things can help our bodies set the stage for good quality sleep.”
Bottom line, as you make plans for your post-pandemic summer, don’t forget about taking care of your heart. “There’s something satisfying about checking off a box on a to-do list,” says Hayes. “So make cardiovascular health part of that to-do list.”
“Whether it’s seven hours of sleep or a certain number of minutes of exercise,” Hayes suggests setting realistic goals that are “less work and more fun,” which also have heart health benefits.
Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove.
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