When someone says “you have a big heart,” they usually mean you are a generous and loving person. But, do you give back to yourself? Even the most giving individuals can neglect their own heart.

Statistics have shown that our community does not have the best track record when it comes to making good, heart-healthy decisions. Good health starts with the heart. There are many factors that contribute to a healthy heart and making smart choices can extend your life by decades. Not only that, healthy living will improve your quality of life and allow you the freedom to enjoy many more things that make you happy.

Here are four simple steps to becoming more heart healthy.

#1 Cutback on unhealthy fats and cholesterol by paying attention to what you eat

This is the most important step you can take and it doesn’t require an ounce of sweat. Saturated and trans fats lead to bad cholesterol which can lead to buildup of plaque in your arteries. This buildup of plaque increases your chances of heart attack and stroke.

Dr. William Sweezer, (Bill), Medical Director of the Cardiac Surgery Program at Danville Heart and Vascular Center summed it up very well. “There are a lot of healthy foods that you can prepare that taste great and sometimes it’s just switching one ingredient for another. Simply trimming the fat off of meats or using olive oil instead of vegetable oil can drastically change fat intake.” When grocery shopping, looking for “partially hydrogenated” (which is another name for trans fats) in the ingredients list of snacks such as chips and cookies and choosing food with better ingredients is a start. Combined with a concerted effort to limit your intake of butter, margarine and shortening in the food you prepare will not only help you live healthier, but is a “big hearted” way to feed those for whom you cook.

Cutting back on unhealthy fats is one vital step in an overall heart healthy diet. In our summer health issue, we will have a full feature on a heart healthy diet. But, don’t wait for our feature. The sooner you start eating better, the sooner you will be on the path to better health.

Here are the basic steps to eating better:
• Eat low fat proteins such as egg whites, fish, skinless chicken, and beans
• Eat more vegetables and fruits
• Eat whole grains
• Lower your sodium intake
• Eat smaller portions and eat several small meals a day instead of a few large meals

#2 Manage Your Stress

The American Heart Association lists stress levels as one of the biggest determiners of heart attack and stroke. Put simply, the higher your stress level, the more likely you are to die from a heart attack or stroke. Dr. Sweezer stated that “In recovery, I tell patients to take time out for themselves each day to reduce the amount of stress in their life. If only I could have given them that advice before their heart attack.” It is great advice.

There are many ways to reduce stress in your life. In this issue, there is a feature story on reducing stress in children’s lives. This article indirectly applies to people of all ages.

Here are some quick stress reduction tips:
• Practice positive self-talk. As corny as it may sound, it works when you say positive things to yourself.
• Practice cool down techniques such as counting to ten, taking deep breaths, or going for a walk.
• Relax. Relaxing doesn’t include watching television or having a conversation. Both of these stimulate you. Relax by taking ten minutes a day, sitting comfortably in a quiet place and do nothing but let your mind come to rest.
• Do something you enjoy such as a hobby, playing golf, reading, or listening to music. Remember to exclude stressful items such as your smart phone from the equation.

#3 Quit Smoking

If you are a smoker, then you are fully aware of the ramifications of your actions. You’ve read all the facts. But, did you know that every cigarette you smoke reduces your expected lifespan by 11 minutes.

ELEVEN minutes.

It’s been said that you can’t buy time, but at 3 hours and 40 minutes taken off of your life per pack of cigarettes smoked, you can sure give time away.

Sandra Greene is a Registered Nurse in Danville Regional Medical Center’s nursery. She had a heart attack in 2011 and in the emergency room when the doctor asked if she smoked, she said “not anymore.” He asked her how long ago she quit and she said, “on the way over here.” She hasn’t smoked since. But, her husband still smokes. It’s not easy to quit even when you see the ramifications first hand. Dr. Sweezer says that “second hand smoke is a major concern for us as health care providers. When you treat the patient you must also treat the family. Cigarette smoke, whether it’s the person smoking themselves or someone in the house smoking, can obviously be a negative factor and concern.” It’s hard enough to quit smoking and when someone smokes around you, it’s like being taunted and tempted over and over again. Given that after a heart attack, 63% of smokers return to smoking within 9 months and 50% within 20 days, family support is vital.

I’ll guarantee you one thing. There will likely come a time when you would trade everything you own for 11 more minutes of life. Is that cigarette really worth it?

#4 Lose Weight

This is the first tip that requires you to actually do something physical. But, even losing a few pounds can drastically improve your cardiovascular fitness. Nearly 70% of American adults are overweight and about a third are obese. The word obese is thrown around a lot, but it simply means someone is more than 20% over their ideal body weight.

Losing weight is a two-part process. Eat less and move more. It’s a pretty simple formula. We’re bombarded daily with advertisements for diet pills, exercise facilities, diet books, diet du jour, exercise equipment…the list is endless. But, beyond all that, is the simple equation. Eat fewer calories than you burn and you will lose weight. We’ve discussed reducing the bad fats that you eat, but in addition to that, it’s important to just eat a little less. Don’t make drastic changes. Take baby steps. And the same applies to burning calories. It really doesn’t take much effort. According to Dr. Sweezer, “thirty minutes of exercise at least 3 times a week will help condition your heart. Exercise should be personal. Just because one activity is good for one person doesn’t mean it’s right for you. It needs to be something that one can accomplish and is fun to do. There are lots of ways to burn calories. Even normal daily activities, such as doing laundry or going up and down stairs, burn calories.”

Begin with a simple exercise that combines several of our tips into one. Take a walk by yourself and if you smoke, leave your cigarettes at home. Put your phone on silent. Take your mp3 player with you and listen to one of your favorite albums. Turn around after 6 songs and head home. Those forty minutes every day or so could save your life. Gradually, when it feels right, you can add a little exercise routine to your life. Something simple.

Each month in Showcase, fitness guru Dave Gluhareff writes about ways to get healthier. He says, “There are no secret pills or shortcuts to losing weight. The most important thing is to gradually eat less and gradually move more.” Very few people can dedicate a huge portion of their life to physical fitness for appearance sake. But, we all have time to invest in our heart so that we can live longer. Love your heart and it will love you back.

Danville Regional Medical Center in affiliation with Duke Medicine offers a state-of-the-art Heart and Vascular Center. In addition to the rapid response team that saves lives after a life threatening event, the vascular program at DRMC offers preventative programs that evaluate and treat your arteries for potential blockages that could cause heart attacks, strokes, and aneurisms, before they happen.

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