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As February is national Heart Health Month, I’d like to provide information on how to nourish yourself to keep your heart healthy and happy. Heart health is not just about diet and exercise; it’s also about one’s outlook on life. In the past decade there have been many studies showing a link between our thoughts or attitude and our heart health.
A 2007 Harvard study determined that, “a sense of enthusiasm, of hopefulness, of engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance—appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.” And the great thing is that about 40% of what determines happiness is under one’s own control!
Meditation: Any practice of mindfulness—whether a short minute or a long hour—is beneficial for grounding oneself and one’s emotions: making us aware of how we feel physically and emotionally. Regular practice can lower heart rate and improve blood flow as well as reduce and manage stress.
Exercise: Finding an activity that gets you moving and that you enjoy (add friends to your walk, participate in classes, try a new sport or activity).
Regularly enjoy a hobby: It was found in the early stages of heart disease that daily hobbies may improve cardiovascular health by dilating your heart more easily, improving blood flow. (2)
Practice Gratitude: Journaling daily what you are thankful for has been shown to decrease inflammation and reduce cardiac risk (3). Put this into practice using a diary on your own or adopt it as a pre-dinner family ritual: you can be thankful for something big or small.
Adopting Social Support: Develop positive relationships with others, whether family members, friends, co-workers, or those with similar interests. Interacting with others has a positive effect on heart health by reducing inflammation and improving blood pressure according to the National Institute on Aging. Other great resources include local counselors, therapists, or social workers.
Also check out the Harvard Health Website on Positive Psychology.
Reduce sodium by cooking more from scratch—restaurant foods and packaged foods contain much higher amounts of sodium.
Stay hydrated by consuming water throughout the day as dehydration makes your heart have to work harder.
Increase fiber intake through lentils, beans, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts or seeds to help naturally lower LDL “bad” cholesterol.
Avoid trans fats by reading labels and avoiding packaged foods that contain the word “hydrogenated” in the ingredient list (this ingredient puts you at higher risk for a heart attack or stroke).
Great resources include local dietitians and the American Heart Association site.
There are many ways to improve heart health—we just have to be willing to put in the effort. Tell yourself, “I am worth it,” and take action by putting yourself on the top of the to-do list. Make this February the time when you dare to improve and start creating new lifestyle habits slowly over time to make changes more manageable. You’ll look back in a year and think, “Wow, I’ve come a long way!”
- Rimer, Sara. Harvard TH Chan of Public Health. Winter 2011.
- Saihara, K., Hamasaki, S., Ishida, S. et al. Heart Vessels (2010) 25:113.
- Mills, Paul, et al. “The Role of Gratitude in Spiritual Well-Being in Asymptomatic Heart Failure Patients”. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, published online April 6, 2015
Vanessa Imus, MS, RD, CD, is a Registered Dietitian providing nutrition education and counseling to patients at the University of Washington Weight Loss Management Center. She enjoys being active through running, hiking, exercise classes or dance games, and chasing her toddler. Her favorite past time is dreaming about and planning vacations.