by Jeff Harr, RCEP

Jeff Harr, RCEP

February is “American Heart Month”. It is a time to raise awareness of heart disease. I’m betting there are probably only a few people reading this article who have not been touched by heart disease in some way: having a heart condition yourself, having a loved one living with heart disease, or having lost a loved one to heart disease. Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States. Approximately every 26 seconds, an American will suffer a coronary event, and about every one minute someone will die from one. It is estimated that there are 600,000 new attacks and 320,000 recurrent attacks each year. The estimated direct and indirect cost of coronary heart disease in 2008 was $156.4 billion. But, take heart! Amazing progress has been made in the treatment of heart disease, and new surgical procedures and medications are being developed to help those living with it.

Many people take their heart for granted until it fails them due to a heart attack, angina (chest pain), or a surgical procedure. If this occurs, it is vitally important that lifestyle changes are made to prevent a reoccurrence of heart disease. I had a patient say to me once, “I would have taken better care of myself had I known I was going to have a heart attack”. We depend on the medical establishment to help us when something goes wrong, but there are many things we can do to help ourselves to good health. I won’t say it’s easy…it takes some effort. Change is hard.

We all have routines and habits that have been established over years. The staff at the BMH Cardiac Rehab often asks patients if they have regular maintenance done on their car such as oil changes. And, the answer is always ‘yes’. Why? Because we hope that with regular maintenance our car will last longer and have fewer mechanical problems. So, why is it that we do not put that effort and money into our bodies? There are many things we can do for maintenance on our bodies to help prevent heart disease. And these important things will work to ward off an initial event and/or prevent it from occurring again if you are already living with heart disease.

Avoid all Tobacco products: Tobacco use is the number one preventable cause of death. Our bodies do not need nicotine or any of the other chemicals linked with smoking and tobacco. Stopping smoking will not only reduce your risk of heart disease, but also your risk of cancer, emphysema, and chronic obstruction pulmonary disease.

Healthy diet: This will help in many areas. First, a healthy diet will help you maintain a healthy weight or could help you lose pounds if needed. Obesity is now the number two preventable cause of death in the United States. Second, a healthy diet will help lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure which are both major risk factors for heart disease. And finally, a healthy diet will also help control high blood sugar if you have diabetes. In case you are wondering what is considered a healthy diet, the Mediterranean diet based on whole grains and lots of fruits and vegetables is highly recommended. Many fad diets being marketed in the media are not healthy. It’s also important to avoid all trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils – check out the ingredient list), eating very limited amounts of meats, and using only no-fat or low-fat dairy products (milk and cheeses). You need to limit or eliminate processed foods. You have more control if you prepare the food yourself. Use locally grown foods whenever possible, and shop the outside aisles of your local supermarkets. Lastly, if you’re looking to lose weight, you will need to limit your calories with smaller portions.

Exercise and increase your activity level: It’s a good idea for all of us to make ourselves a little uncomfortable every day, get our blood flowing, and be a little short of breath. See your physician if you start an exercise plan, especially if you have any risk factors for heart disease. The intensity of exercise should make you a little short of breath, but you should be able to carry on a conversation. If you can sing along with your MP3 player, you need to pick up the pace. Thirty or more minutes for five to six days a week is ideal. Exercise also helps us maintain a healthy weight or lose extra pounds. Any activity will burn calories. Find an exercise you like and then increase your time and intensity doing it as your body becomes stronger and more fit. The more we do, the healthier we will be.

Stress management: We all have some stress in our lives and a little stress can help motivate us. The important thing is learning a stress management technique to reduce the impact of stress on our bodies. Examples are deep breathing, guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, etc. The important thing is that we take time to do some type of relaxation technique every day.

A little work in these four areas will have lasting health benefits not only to reduce our heart disease risk, but also to reduce our risk for cancer, diabetes, hypertension, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s, etc. Taking our bodies for granted without maintenance will lead to mechanical failure at some point. Making changes now can help keep you healthy. Now that you have read this, get up out of that chair and go for a walk.

Jeff Harr is a registered clinical exercise physiologist at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, he is the director of the BMH Cardiac Rehabilitation Program.