20 Heartfelt Healthy Habits
It’s February, the month in which we celebrate Valentine’s Day. So, there is going to be lots of talk on the internet, on television and church about the heart and everything associated with it. The heart is a big deal—though a small organ—and it deserves to have its own month. As a matter fact, the heart should have three months! Yes, three, as in after two and before four.
Why three? Because the human heart is more than the organ which “beats about 2.5 billion times over the average lifetime, pushing millions of gallons of blood to every part of the body…[carrying] with it oxygen, fuel, hormones, other compounds, and a host of essential cells…[whisking] away the waste products of metabolism.”
The human heart is also the basis of the mental and emotional elements of our personal life. It is “the source, or spring, of motives; the seat of the passions; the center of the thought processes; the spring of conscience” (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology).
A healthy you means that these “three hearts”—the physical, the mental, and the emotional—are functioning symbiotically, helping each other to be well. Therefore, a malfunction of any one of these hearts could lead to the death of them all.
I sense you’re not convinced.
Well, let’s take a look at the top twenty habits for a healthy heart organ and cardiovascular system. You will notice that habits that keep the mind and the spirit healthy are also essential to keeping the heart organ and system healthy.
1. Eat the Mediterranean way. This diet does prevent heart attacks, strokes, and death from cardiovascular disease. The Mediterranean diet consists of foods rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts, supplemented with olive oil. Eating the right foods in the right proportion is more important and beneficial to your heart than taking vitamins and mineral supplements.
There are two noteworthy alternatives to the Mediterranean diet. A plant-focused diet, such as DASH, has also been shown to be beneficial to the heart. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet “emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, and nuts while minimizing salt, sugar, and red meat consumption.” The plant-based diet consists of high-quality plant protein sources—beans and nuts—and excludes MDEs—meats, dairy and eggs.
Which of these diets will you adopt today?
2. Drink healthy beverages. The best beverages for your heart are water (including flavored, unsweetened), tea and coffee (not including creamers and sugars). What about that one glass of red wine? No. Even moderate drinking is believed to harm the heart and increase the risk of atrial fibrillation (afib).
What will be your drink of choice today?
3. Exercise regularly. Move! The body was designed to move! Walk briskly or leisurely. Hike. “[E]ven low-intensity activity such as light housework or gardening—may help to lower a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease.” It is essential that you avoid long stretches of sitting, lying in bed, or lying on the couch.
I know that as we grow older, falling becomes a concern. The remedy, however, is not to stop moving but to walk in safe places, to walk with a companion, and to walk with the support you need, be it the right shoes, a cane or a walker. How important is exercise? Researchers have found that for stroke survivors, exercising may be more effective than drugs in preventing another stroke.
Have you exercised or done some low-intensity activity today?
4. Dress properly for outdoor work during winter. Here’s why: “Low temperatures constrict blood vessels, reducing blood flow to the heart. Shoveling snow, which can be more strenuous than running on a treadmill, increases the risk of heart attack. People who have or are at risk of heart disease should take precautions in cold weather, such as wearing a hat and gloves and dressing in layers to help maintain a steady body temperature before going outdoors.”
5. Control your blood pressure, because high blood pressure is a leading indicator of cardiovascular disease. Based on the American College of Cardiology guidelines released in 2017, a normal blood pressure level is defined as less than 120/80 mmHg. So, pay attention to the top (systolic pressure) and bottom (diastolic pressure) numbers of your pressure reading. The diastolic number is important for predicting heart disease risk.
Another important reason to keep your blood pressure within normal range is to maintain your thinking skills and memory. High blood pressure and other factors that damage arteries to the heart may also harm vessels to the brain and cause cognitive decline.
Do you know your blood pressure level?
6. Get your annual flu shot. The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months or older should get the flu shot every season , but less than half of people age 50 or older get the vaccine. Here’s why the shot is important: “Growing evidence links influenza infections with both heart attack and heart failure. Having a serious infection can put stress on the heart, increasing its need for oxygen. Coughing and congestion can make breathing more difficult. Like all infections, influenza kicks the immune system into gear. The resulting outpouring of inflammatory molecules may make blood more likely to form clots and irritate the cells lining blood vessels, changes that could boost the risk of a heart attack.”
Have you had your flu shot?
7. Keep a positive outlook on life. Optimism has been associated with a lower risk of angina, heart attack, stroke, or death from cardiovascular causes. Optimism is more than having a sunny disposition. It is having purpose, a reason for being—raison d’être—and, therefore, for doing. Myles Munroe, in his book In Pursuit of Purpose, says that “purpose is the key to life. Without purpose, life has no meaning….Purpose is the master of motivation and the mother of commitment.”
Do you know your purpose, the reason you exist now?
8. Get at least 7 hours of sleep each night. It’s not only about beauty, as important as that is. “People who consistently get less than six hours of sleep nightly face a higher risk of heart disease as well as other, often co-occurring conditions such as diabetes and obesity….Insufficient sleep also appears to raise stress hormone levels and inflammation, which also strain the heart.”
How many hours did you sleep last night?
9. Practice focused breathing. Deep, focused breathing is free, easy, takes a few minutes, and can be done anywhere. Breathe deeply when you are stressed. Deep breathing would lower your stress and maintain blood flow to your heart muscle.
Pause now to take 7 deep breaths.
10. Get a pet. Not just any pet, a dog. A study published in the September 2019 issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes found that dog owners have healthier hearts. Pet owners generally tend to be more physically active, have better eating habits and healthier blood sugar levels than non-pet owners. But dog owners experienced these benefits (especially daily exercise!) to a greater degree. Additionally, dog owners enjoy the human-canine bond which, researchers say, “may have stress-relieving benefits that also enhance heart health.”
Do you have a pet? Are you thinking about getting a pet?
11. Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion is the capacity to be warm and kind to yourself as you would to a hurting friend. When you are in pain, feeling inadequate, or experiencing some form of suffering, show compassion towards yourself, instead of self-criticism. In other words, by practicing self-compassion, you are training yourself to have an inner ally instead of an inner critic. This behavior helps to de-stress the heart, and a stress-free heart is a healthier heart. Harvard Health Publishing Online Newsletter gives this warning: “It is important to control your worry and stress, not just because you will worry less and feel better, but because less worry means less stress for your heart. This applies to the entire range of stressors, from a small episode of acute panic to a larger context such as living through a natural disaster.”
Have you complimented yourself today?
12. Practice gratitude. Gratitude is the mother of joy. Look around you. What is it that you see today that you can be thankful for? Count your blessings not your burdens. Like self-compassion, gratitude puts worry into perspective and stress at bay, removing negative pressures from your heart.
Have you reflected on your blessings today?
13. Control your cholesterol level. The optimal total cholesterol level is less than 200 milligrams per deciliter or mg/dL. That figure is made up of good cholesterol (HDL) and bad cholesterol (LDL). A high cholesterol level, especially when it is due to high LDL, can put you at high risk for cardiovascular disease. Unhealthy diet, insufficient exercise, and hereditary factors can cause your cholesterol level to rise over time.
Do you know what your cholesterol level is?
14. Make Connections. Joy shared is joy doubled; trouble shared is troubled halved. And there is science behind this maxim. Oxytocin is the “love neuro-hormone” that influences our mood and plays a role in social bonding, sexual reproduction, childbirth, and the period after childbirth. It is produced in the brain by the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary into the bloodstream. What stimulates its production? Being with someone you believe cares for you or being hugged, cuddled. This connection brings feelings of warmth and healing, increasing oxytocin in the bloodstream, lowering your blood pressure and stress level.
Who can you connect with today?
15. Practice good oral hygiene, because it does more than enhance your appearance and social life; it wards against gum disease, an indicator of cardiovascular disease. A study published in the European Heart Journal in 2019 revealed that brushing your teeth at least twice per day and having one professional cleaning per year could reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by as much as 14 percent.
Have you scheduled your professional cleaning for 2020?
16. Use health-related smartphone apps. The best smartphone apps are the ones that “pair with devices that measure your blood pressure [a blood pressure cuff], your heart’s electrical activity [a personal electrocardiogram], or your weight [a scale].” The information these apps record can help your doctor “make faster and better-informed treatment decisions”.
Who said older adults don’t like apps! Try one today.
17. Practice spirituality. Spirituality is the strength of the mental and emotional hearts, where “moral and spiritual battles must be fought and won.” Spirituality that cultivates love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control is good for the cardiovascular system, as it reduces blood pressure and stress levels. Prayer and meditation are effective forms of spirituality.
Have you paused to pray, meditate today?
18. Control your blood sugar level. The normal range for a fasting blood sugar test is between 60 and 99 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Higher-than-normal blood sugar levels can lead to type 2 diabetes. “Type 2 diabetes increases the risk for vision loss; heart disease; stroke; kidney failure; amputation of toes, feet, or legs; and even early death.” The way to avoid elevated blood sugar levels is to exercise, lose weight, and cut back on refined grains and added sugars.
Do you know what your blood sugar level is?
19. Do not smoke. Smoking stresses the heart. It raises the blood pressure, which makes the heart work harder. It also increases the bad cholesterol, increasing fatty deposits on the walls of the heart.
Do you smoke? Quit smoking.
20. If you cannot adopt heartfelt healthy habits 1 to 19, just adopt this one.
• Control your blood pressure
• Control your cholesterol level
• Follow healthy heart habits
o Choose a Mediterranean, plant-focused, or plant-based diet
o Engage in regular physical activity
• Get adequate sleep
• Practice self-compassion.
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