Two grandparents and a granddaughter on bicycles in the grass laughing together

Building a Healthy Whole Heart

For many, February is about red hearts and love, roses and candy. But for many others, it's a reminder that taking care of our hearts is a serious matter – and can even become a matter of life or death. 

Heart disease is responsible for 1 in 4 deaths in the U.S., making it the leading cause of death in men and women. But even more shocking is that nearly 50% of all adults in the U.S. have major risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol, and/or physical inactivity. For many of us in the Y, this is our story - we have been diagnosed with high blood pressure or heart disease, have suffered a stroke, or had a heart attack. For even more of us, we have lost a loved one. But the reality is that we can all do things to protect our hearts with few small changes. 

Before you stop reading because you assume I will tell you to carve out hours at the gym, train for next year's Disney marathon, drink carrot and kale juice or stop eating any of those leftover Christmas cookies: I'm not. Though, you may want to consider throwing out the cookies because they're old.

I would contend that building a whole, healthy heart is about three simple things. First, if you want your heart to be healthy, you need to "work it out," but that doesn't mean doing anything drastic like running 26 miles. Start by simply moving more. Did you know that most Americans are considered physically inactive? According to the Mayo Clinic, you can reap many benefits by adding 5 minutes of movement several times throughout your day, like walking, stretching, or any workout that raises your heart rate. Those benefits include controlling your weight, releasing brain chemicals to improve your mood, boosting your energy, helping you sleep better, reducing stress, and combating heart disease. 

Second, if you want your heart to be healthy, you need to be mindful of what you are putting into your body and eat healthy foods. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, Americans consume 31% more processed food than fresh food and average over 3,600 calories per day. The result is a rise in obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes, and other risk factors for heart disease and the aggravation of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Nonetheless, don't jump to a diet. Instead, make small changes like adding more fruits and vegetables, swapping out more fish for red meat, and reducing sweets.

And third, if you want a truly healthy heart, you need to work on nurturing a happy heart. Taking time to pay attention to our emotions is essential for our health. Just as negative emotions such as depression, anger, and hostility are known risk factors for heart attack and stroke, a Canadian study suggests that happiness seems to protect the heart by releasing a host of positive chemical changes that are good for the heart. Furthermore, happy people tend to sleep better, eat better, get more exercise and avoid coping mechanisms such as smoking. But how can you start nurturing your happiness? Doctors from Columbia University suggest finding 15-20 minutes a day doing something enjoyable or relaxing like chatting with a friend, reading a book, painting, listening to music, or just sitting outdoors in the sunshine; and to avoid being alone, isolated, and disconnected. 

This is what heart month is all about – not just how to make our physical heart healthier but how to open our hearts to be kinder and gentler with ourselves so the other side of our heart that ties to our mind and emotions can also be healthier. You matter, so make this heart month about building a whole, healthy heart!