Caring for Your Health

Caring for your heart

Our heart often goes unnoticed until it encounters problems.

It is the vital muscle that tirelessly beats over 100,000 times each day, providing oxygen-rich blood to nourish our body’s tissues and cells, keeping them in good health.

However, as we grow older, various factors can compromise our cardiovascular health, including both hereditary conditions and lifestyle choices.

The encouraging news is that most of these issues are within our control, and by making necessary adjustments to our lifestyle, we can mitigate genetic predispositions and enhance our heart health.

This guide presents a 21-day challenge aimed at naturally improving heart health.

While many of the suggested activities are straightforward to incorporate into daily life, others may require commitment and perseverance to follow through.

Although 21 suggestions are provided, it is crucial for you to establish your own objectives.

Consider your age, family history, current overall well-being, and consult with your doctor to identify key metrics that will guide your heart health journey.

Before delving into the challenge, let’s explore why prioritizing heart health is paramount and familiarize ourselves with the essential numbers that will inform our goal-setting.

Why Heart Health Is So Important?

Heart health is an important matter that often takes a backseat to cancer prevention, despite the fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide for both men and women.

While it is commonly believed that heart issues primarily affect men, the reality is that a significant number of women also suffer from heart attacks.

In fact, studies have shown that women often experience less noticeable symptoms, leading to less favorable outcomes compared to men.

A heart attack occurs when a main coronary artery is severely or completely blocked, cutting off the blood supply to the heart.

This blockage is often caused by plaque buildup in the arteries, resulting in their narrowing and hardening.

The plaque may either restrict blood flow, depriving the heart tissue of oxygen, or break off and form a clot that obstructs the narrowed artery entirely.

In either case, the affected heart tissue can die, leading to severe consequences. Prompt treatment is crucial to prevent further damage and potential fatality.

Shockingly, up to 50% of women who suffer a heart attack die within the first year.

Furthermore, studies have revealed that women’s risk of heart attacks surpasses that of men by the time they reach their 80s.

Heart disease claims more lives annually than the top 10 cancer causes combined, highlighting the urgent need to prioritize heart health.

Fortunately, many heart-healthy habits also contribute to effective cancer prevention. It is time to embark on a 21-day challenge for better heart and overall health.

Let’s begin the first week of this transformative journey.

Getting Started (Week 1)

During your first week, you will be laying the groundwork for a heart-healthy lifestyle.

It is crucial to start from your current state of health, diet, and activity level and gradually incorporate heart-healthy strategies each day.

Alternatively, you can begin implementing heart-healthy steps that will yield excellent results if consistently followed. Let’s begin with your initial significant day.

Day 1 – Familiarize Yourself with Important Metrics

The first day of your challenge involves examining the essential numbers that provide insights into your current health status.

By understanding these numbers, you can make informed decisions about your heart-healthy goals as you progress through the 21-day challenge.

If you have visited the doctor in the past three months, your initial step is to contact them and inquire about the following readings:

1. Blood pressure
2. Weight and height
3. Blood glucose reading
4. Total cholesterol
5. LDL cholesterol
6. HDL cholesterol
7. Triglycerides

If you haven’t had a recent doctor’s visit, schedule an appointment. Once you receive the test results, consider it as the first day of your challenge.

1. Blood pressure indicates the force exerted inside the arteries when the heart pumps. Excessive force can lead to arterial hardening.

2. Your weight and height are utilized to calculate your Body Mass Index (BMI), which determines whether you have a normal weight, are overweight, or fall into the obese category.

3. Blood glucose levels determine your health status, whether you are healthy, pre-diabetic, or diabetic. Individuals with diabetes often face heart health issues and other potential problems if blood sugar levels aren’t properly managed.

Items 4 to 7 are all interconnected with your cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a fatty substance produced by the liver and consumed through animal-based food sources like meat, dairy, and eggs.

LDL cholesterol, also known as “bad” cholesterol, contributes to arterial hardening. HDL cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol, helps keep arteries clear of LDL cholesterol buildup. High triglyceride levels can result from animal-based foods and high-carbohydrate diets, potentially leading to weight gain if not balanced with regular exercise.

Once you have all seven numbers, record them in a new heart health diary.

This will assist you in tracking your progress throughout the challenge and as you continue practicing good habits in the coming weeks.

You may find that one or more of the seven numbers require attention. Here are the normal ranges for each of them, excluding BMI, which we will discuss shortly.

1. Blood Pressure: Normal range is 120/80.
3. Blood Glucose: Normal range is between 4% and 6%.
4. Total Cholesterol: Less than 200.
5. LDL Cholesterol: Less than 100.
6. HDL Cholesterol: 60 or higher.
7. Triglycerides: Less than 150.

For BMI, calculate your score and determine where it falls within the established ranges. If your BMI falls within the normal range, that’s great.

If not, refer to the tables to identify a normal BMI reading for someone of your height and set a target weight to aim for.

Consider aiming for the middle of the range to avoid any concerns if a few pounds fluctuate and push you into the overweight category.

If weight loss is necessary, make a note of your target number for future reference.

Day 2 – Commence Today, Not Your Past

Many of us find ourselves yearning for the “good old days” when we were younger and more physically fit.

However, for many individuals, those days are now a distant memory, particularly if they have neglected to incorporate regular physical activity into their daily routines.

Furthermore, underlying health conditions like arthritis can make exercising a painful endeavor.

In your personal journal, you have recorded your most significant measurements.

Utilize these measurements as a starting point to gauge your current status, also known as your baseline.

Now, take note of the following:

– Your age
– Your gender
– Your activity level
– Your preferred activities
– Any underlying health issues
– Your eating habits (consider keeping a food diary for today and the rest of the week to track everything you consume)
– Your stress levels
– The quality of your sleep
– Any recent feelings of sadness or anxiety

Figure 3: Starting from where you are

Individuals of different ages and genders are susceptible to certain illnesses.

For instance, women between the ages of 35 and 55 constitute 90% of individuals with rheumatoid arthritis.

When it comes to your activity level, are you primarily sedentary, spending most of your day sitting in front of a computer? Do you engage in any form of exercise?

If so, what activities do you enjoy?

It is important to pursue activities that bring you joy so that incorporating physical activity into your daily routine does not feel burdensome.

Whenever embarking on a new self-care regimen, such as a diet or exercise plan, always take your current medical conditions into consideration.

Even if you already have a pre-existing condition like heart disease, there are numerous measures you can take to improve your heart health.

Simply consult with your doctor to determine what is safe and sensible for you.

Maintaining a food diary can help you identify patterns and unhealthy eating habits.

It will also reveal where a significant portion of your calorie intake comes from, such as snacks throughout the day versus a nutritious dinner each night.

If time permits, utilize a reliable food database to track the calories you consume.

The recommended daily calorie allowance is 2,500 for men and 2,000 for women, but this recommendation assumes a certain level of daily activity.

Additionally, it is a general guideline that may be suitable for individuals in their 20s and 30s, but can lead to weight gain in individuals over 40 due to slower metabolisms.

Losing a pound requires burning 3,500 calories, while gaining a pound only necessitates consuming and not burning an extra 2,000 calories.

Therefore, it is important for your heart health to strive for a sensible weight.

Even losing as little as 20 pounds has been proven to alleviate arthritis symptoms and, in some cases, reverse diabetes.

Your stress levels, ability to obtain 8 hours of sleep per night, and overall mood can also impact your overall health.

As our understanding of the mind, body, and spirit connection deepens, it becomes crucial to adopt a holistic approach to our well-being, rather than solely focusing on food and diet.

Throughout this process, honesty is key. By being honest with yourself, you can pinpoint the areas that require your attention in order to improve your heart health.

Once you have recorded your responses in your journal, you will be prepared for tomorrow’s activity, utilizing the knowledge you have gained to establish SMART goals.

Day 3 – Set SMART Goals

On Day 3 of your health journey, it’s time to set SMART goals.

After analyzing your current health status and numbers, you can choose a specific health goal to work towards.

It could be lowering your cholesterol naturally, losing weight, or increasing your physical activity.

While it’s great to have multiple goals, it’s important to start with one that is SMART.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timed. Many people fail to succeed in their goals because they are too vague.

Saying “I want to lose weight” without specifying how much or by when doesn’t lead to success.

For example, a SMART goal would be: “I want to lose 20 pounds by my class reunion in June, which is 12 weeks away.”

This goal is specific (20 pounds), measurable (starting at 160 and aiming for 140), achievable (1 to 2 pounds per week), relevant (important to them), and timed (by the time of their class reunion).

However, if you are already thin but have cholesterol issues, losing weight may not be relevant for you.

In that case, a goal could be to reduce red meat consumption and add a fruit or vegetable to every meal for the next 21 days, followed by checking your cholesterol levels again.

“Eating better” is a common goal, but it means different things to different people.

To make it measurable, you could aim for the general recommendation of 11 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

Keep a checklist and cross off each item as you consume it.

It’s important to note that potato chips and fries don’t count as vegetables, but baked or microwaved potatoes do.

If your cholesterol levels are very high, using a home monitor with test strips can help you track your progress in lowering your total, LDL, and triglycerides.

While it may be an expensive investment, check if it’s covered by insurance or your flexible spending account.

In the US, it might also be tax-deductible if your health care costs exceed 10% of your income.

Discuss your SMART goal with your doctor to ensure you’re on the right track.

If weight loss is the priority, determine a healthy weight range based on your height and track your progress accordingly.

Achieving heart-healthy activities takes time, especially if you need to lose more than 20 pounds.

If cholesterol is a concern, the dietary changes suggested in this 21-day heart health challenge can help you meet your doctor’s targets.

Remember, cholesterol is produced naturally by the body and not solely derived from animal-based foods.

The changes you make over time will be steps in the right direction, but if you still struggle to reach your goals, consult your doctor for other options.

It’s always best to pursue natural methods rather than relying on a pill for a quick fix.

While statin drugs like atorvastatin (Lipitor) are commonly used to lower LDL cholesterol, they come with potential side effects such as muscle pain, liver and kidney damage, neurological issues, and even heart damage.

Day 4 – Start A Walking Program

In order to enhance your heart health, we will be presenting a 21-day plan consisting of various activities that promote a natural lifestyle.

There’s no need to rely on medications, trendy products, or gimmicks to improve your cardiovascular well-being.

Tomorrow, we will introduce another proven method to enhance your overall health.

One of the simplest ways to increase physical activity, burn calories, and boost your well-being is by starting a walking program.

To begin, make sure you have a comfortable pair of walking shoes and apply sunscreen.

Dedicate 15 minutes each day to walking, regardless of the weather conditions.

If it’s unfavorable outside, consider walking indoors at a mall; just remember to leave your credit cards behind to maintain a healthy bank account.

Gradually increase the duration of your walks each day.

Additionally, try getting off at a bus or train stop either before or after your usual one during your daily commute.

This will allow you to incorporate more physical activity into your busy schedule. Keeping track of your progress in a journal can be made easier by using a pedometer.

Day 5 – Take Charge of Your Blood Pressure

If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, it may be beneficial to consider purchasing a home monitor.

Another approach worth trying is the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches for Stopping Hypertension.

This diet was developed by researchers who aimed to determine if blood pressure could be controlled solely through dietary changes, eliminating the need for medications with potential side effects.

The answer to this question was a resounding yes. You can access and print free guides on implementing the DASH diet to plan heart-healthy meals (refer to Figure 6: 5-Deal with high blood pressure).

Lowering sodium intake is the simplest way to reduce high blood pressure, and we will delve into this topic further tomorrow.

Now that you understand the impact of sodium on blood pressure, it is time to make healthier choices regarding the convenience foods you consume and transition to fresh options.

Check all the food in your home and carefully read the labels to assess their sodium and fat content.

Establish a limit based on daily allowances as part of a well-balanced diet.

For instance, if you find that a can of soup contains 50% of your daily sodium allowance in one serving, consider setting it aside to donate to a local food bank.

Subsequently, make wiser choices when grocery shopping or, even better, explore simple and nutritious recipes like those featured in the DASH diet.

These recipes not only assist in lowering blood pressure and cholesterol but often contribute to weight loss as well.

Day 6 – Remove Temptations

To prevent yourself from consuming tempting foods, it is important to refrain from keeping them in your household.

It is advisable to stick to a shopping list and avoid grocery shopping when hungry or tired, as this can result in impulsive shopping, excessive spending, and overeating.

Surely, you have witnessed individuals eating snacks while browsing through the aisles of your local store.

However, these snacks are typically bags of potato chips or cookies, rather than healthier options such as carrot sticks or apples.

Day 6 entails the task of decluttering your cabinets.

Although the notion of discarding food may seem wasteful, it is possible to obtain a receipt for your donations and claim them as tax deductions.

Once your cupboards are empty, it is time to strategically shop for more nutritious food items.

In addition, it is recommended to clean out your refrigerator.

It is wise to avoid smoked foods and cheese, as they often contain high levels of sodium due to the use of salt as a cost-effective preservative.

Opt for fresh salmon and low-sodium cheese instead of regular or smoked varieties.

Reducing your sodium intake can lead to a significant loss of water weight, potentially resulting in a 5 to 10-pound weight reduction.

It is important to remember that every bit of weight loss contributes to improved heart health and the overall well-being of your back, hips, and knees.

Tomorrow, we will shift our focus to exploring other effortless methods of transitioning to a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Day 7 – Make Simple Changes Whenever Possible

You don’t have to give up all the things you enjoy. Instead of whole milk, you can try 2%, 1%, or fat-free options.

Another alternative is soy milk, which is creamy, rich, and contains more calcium than regular milk.

Try finding easy and healthy “copycat” recipes from your favorite restaurants. These recipes offer the same great taste but with fewer calories and harmful ingredients.

Research substitutions for recipes that are healthier, like using unsweetened applesauce instead of butter in baking.

You don’t have to completely give up potato chips.

Instead, you can slice your potatoes thinly, coat a baking sheet with olive oil, and bake them until they become crispy.

This method can also be applied to sweet potatoes, creating a fancier chip at a fraction of the cost of store-bought ones.

Make your own granola using whole oats and real maple syrup.

It’s best to avoid commercial brands and trail mix snack bars, as they may seem healthy but actually contain more salt, sugar, and fat than a fast food burger.

If you enjoy coffee-based drinks from popular chains, be mindful of the calories they contain.

To indulge in the taste without excess calories, order a small size in a large cup and add skim milk and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, or cocoa.

This way, you can enjoy a customized cup of coffee at a lower cost and with fewer empty calories.

Instant pudding is often high in salt, so it’s better to avoid it.

Instead, you can make your own bread pudding using leftover bread, eggs or egg whites, skim milk, and cinnamon.

To make it even healthier, consider adding apples or raisins.

There are plenty of slimmed-down versions of your favorite dishes that you can easily cook from scratch.

Save these recipes in a folder on your computer or print them out to keep in a folder near your heart-healthy journal.

Make note of the calories per serving, recommended serving size, and the amounts of fat, carbs, and protein.

Aim for meals that are high in protein and low in carbs and fat.

Utilize these recipes to plan your meals according to your daily calorie allowance.

If you’re aiming to lose weight, reduce your daily allowance by 500 calories and divide the remaining calories into three meals and a couple of snacks.

For example, if your daily calorie goal is 1,500, aim for breakfast to be around 200-300 calories, lunch around the same or up to 400 calories, dinner around 500 calories, and the remaining 300 calories for three 100-calorie snacks throughout the day.

Instead of buying pre-packaged snack packs, you can make your own by using small zip-top bags and a kitchen scale to measure out portions of nuts, raisins, or other snacks.

Congratulations on completing week 1! You’ve laid the foundation for a heart-healthy lifestyle by learning about your numbers and setting goals to improve them.

You’ve also gained an understanding of why sodium is detrimental to your health and how to make the most of the calories you consume.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of your second week, where you’ll receive another heart-healthy tip for Day 8.