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As a cardiologist, I know how important it is to eat healthy and exercise. And, up until COVID hit, I applied the same tips for a healthy heart that I recommend to my patients in my personal life. However, when the pandemic began affecting our communities, I quickly abandoned some of those habits without realizing it.
I gained ten pounds, became less disciplined, and neglected exercise, which started a vicious cycle that many of my patients can relate to. I missed seeing my patients face-to-face, and I wasn’t able to see my friends and family, which felt isolating. Many of my patients needed a shoulder to cry on as they dealt with pain and loss from anxiety, stress, job loss, and more. And the truth is, I was going through the same emotional and mental turmoil that my patients were struggling with.
It can be hard to establish healthy habits but it’s critical to preventing #HeartDisease. On the #LiveWellHealthy blog, learn 4 tips from cardiologist Dr. Chahal, who had to re-establish her own heart health during #COVID19: https://bit.ly/3jfC35V.
Why it’s important to have a healthy heart.
The heart is an incredible organ, beating several thousand times a day and pumping nutrients throughout the body. But, to do its job efficiently, it has to be healthy. Anything that puts stress on the heart muscle impacts the rest of our body. For example, we know that excess weight gain can lead to other health problems, like diabetes and high blood pressure. Those conditions can eventually lead to heart disease.
In highly stressful situations, our body releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is like your body’s “fight or flight” response to stress, shutting down other parts of the body while we respond to the stressor. Studies show that women are more prone to chronic stress, and long-term exposure to stressful situations positions you and your heart at high risk for cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Everything is connected in our body. That’s why it’s so important to be aware of our daily choices that impact our hearts, including:
- What we eat
- How much we exercise
- How we handle stress
This applies to cardiologists, too. Eventually, I realized that I needed to take back control of my heart health. Here’s how I did it.
How I regained control of my heart health.
When COVID-19 derailed my healthy habits, I decided to take small steps that were manageable and realistic. The first thing I did was sign up for an online yoga platform as a way to motivate myself to exercise in the absence of visiting the gym. I invited some friends to do it virtually with me throughout the week. And, we began getting together once a week outside in a socially distanced setting to do the class together while wearing masks.
Within two weeks, I felt more energetic again and more empathetic with my patients, although I could only see them virtually. The more I did it, the better I felt, and the more motivated I was to make mindful choices throughout the day, including more nutritious food choices. I lost the weight I had gained and maybe even a few extra pounds without using any kind of fad diet.
A cardiologist’s top tips for a healthy heart.
Tip #1: Eat more whole foods and less processed foods.
Whole foods encompass anything you can get from nature, including:
- Whole grains
Whole foods are nutrient-dense and don’t come from a box or factory. In contrast, processed foods typically have a long list of ingredients, many of which you cannot pronounce. They’re empty calories that take minimal effort to cook, and they contain chemicals to stay preserved over a long time. A potato, for example, is a whole food. Comparatively, potato chips are processed foods that are high in fat and sodium.
It can be hard to break eating habits, especially when options abound at the grocery store. You don’t have to overhaul your whole pantry and life at once. Try taking one meal at a time, one snack at a time, one day at a time. A slow approach could follow the following steps week-by-week:
- Learn what a whole food is
- Distinguish between whole foods and processed foods at the store
- Swap a few of your favorite processed breakfast foods for whole foods (e.g. eat oatmeal and fruit instead of sugary cereal for breakfast)
- Start swapping ingredients for snacks and the rest of your meals
Tip #2: Move every day.
Our attitude about exercise needs to change. You don’t need to exercise for two hours every day in the gym. In fact, the best effects from exercise come from moderate to high-intensity exercise that lasts just 20 to 30 minutes. Even walking can help you to keep heart disease at bay.
Aim to exercise at least 30 minutes every day. If you have a busy schedule, you don’t have to do it all at once. Consider breaking up your exercise time into chunks. For example, get up and walk three times a day for 10 minutes in between meetings.
The benefits extend beyond looking and feeling good. Exercise can also help:
- Tone your muscles
- Strengthen your heart
- Lower inflammation in your body
- Fight disease
Many forms of exercise don’t require a lot of equipment or expensive membership, such as yoga or hiking. Just do something to avoid being sedentary all day!
Tip #3: Meditate.
As I mentioned, everything in our body is connected, including things that create emotional calmness. That includes meditation and things like mindfulness which helps us to reduce our stress and thereby increases our ability to fight disease.
Even ten minutes of meditation can produce the feel-good hormone serotonin that offers health benefits. Meditation can look different for everyone but may include:
- Thinking about your day
- Practicing slow-breathing
Tip #4: Be kind and grateful.
Your mental and emotional health impacts your overall well-being, including our heart health. Similar to meditation, showing kindness releases good hormones that can:
- Lower stress
- Reduce inflammation
- Lower your blood pressure
- Increase your body’s ability to fight disease
- Lessen depression
It’s easy to show kindness, whether it’s simply holding the door for someone else or reflecting on the things in your life that you appreciate.
Watch our Facebook Live broadcast with Dr. Chahal to learn more about taking control of your heart health:
Start taking steps toward a healthier heart today.
There’s no quick fix to a healthy heart. But by taking small steps in the right direction, you can develop long-lasting habits that will benefit your heart and your entire body. If I can do it, you can, too.
If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease, continue taking your medication and working with your doctor to make healthier choices. At MedStar Health, we’re here for you and are taking strict precautions to ensure our offices are safe and ready to care for you. Don’t delay care. In an emergency, it’s far better for you to be in the care of the experts rather than at home, even during the pandemic.