The human heart works hard, there is no doubt about it. Throughout the average person’s life, their heart will beat around 2.5 billion times. Its job is to move blood through the circulatory system so it can reach the entire body.
The circulatory system carries oxygen, important cells, nutrients, hormones, and other compounds throughout the body. It also removes waste material, like carbon dioxide.
Prioritizing heart health is important because we need it to perform well, 24/7, throughout the entirety of our lives. When the heart is weakened by cardiovascular disease, our quality of life will suffer. And if the heart fails, it won’t be able to do the important jobs it needs to do for the body.
What Is Cardiovascular Disease?
Heart disease covers a wide range of health issues related to the heart. Cardiovascular disease more specifically refers to conditions involving narrowed or blocked blood vessels. This can lead to chest pain, heart attack, or stroke.
Symptoms of Cardiovascular Disease
Symptoms of cardiovascular disease include:
- shortness of breath
- chest pain, discomfort, tightness, or pressure
- weakness, pain, numbness, or coldness in the arms or legs caused by narrowed blood vessels in those areas
- pain in the jaw, throat, neck, abdomen, or upper back
Cardiovascular disease symptoms can look different for men and women. Chest pain is more likely for men. Women are more likely to exhibit symptoms like shortness of breath, chest discomfort, extreme fatigue, and nausea.
A Healthy Lifestyle for a Healthy Heart
Maintaining a healthy heart is mainly linked with making healthy lifestyle choices. What we eat, how we exercise, and what supplements we take all contribute to optimal heart health.
Food for Heart Health
Making healthy food choices is one of the most consistent ways to support heart health. Focus on eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to support a healthy cardiovascular system. Make sure to limit the saturated and trans fats, to reduce high cholesterol levels and coronary artery disease. Olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados are all sources of healthy fats that can actually help lower total blood cholesterol. However, make sure to still consume these in moderation!
When choosing sources of protein, look for ones that are low in fat. These include:
- low-fat dairy products
- lean ground meats
- poultry without skin
Limit your consumption of processed meat including hot dogs, sausages, bacon, and fried or breaded meats. It is also important to limit marbled meats, spare ribs, and organ meats, like liver.
Monitor Sodium Intake for Heart Health
Another important area to look out for is the amount of sodium we consume. Eating too much sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Ideally, healthy adults would consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. This is equivalent to about a teaspoon of table salt.
A great way to reduce sodium intake is simply to cook meals at home. Canned and processed food tend to have more sodium in them, but when we cook, we get to decide how much salt is in the food. Additionally, condiments are an unexpected way that sodium can sneak into our diets. By checking the labels before using a product, it makes it easier to choose low-sodium condiments.
Keep an eye on portion sizes, too. Consuming too many calories can lead to excess weight, and being overweight or obese are both risk factors for cardiovascular disease. If someone plans to eat out, remember that restaurants often serve larger portions than the average person needs. Only eat part of the dish and take the rest home to enjoy later! At home, use smaller plates and bowls to control the amount eaten. Eating slowly and stopping before feeling full can also help reduce calorie intake. We also recommend using a measuring cup or scale to ensure good portion sizes.
Exercise for Heart Health
Staying physically active is important for preventing cardiovascular disease. Focusing on three specific types of exercise can help achieve long-term heart health.
1. Aerobic Exercise for Heart Health
Get the heart pumping with aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week. This can look like brisk walking, running, cycling, playing, tennis, and swimming. Aerobic exercise improves circulation, which can reduce both blood pressure and heart rate. It also reduces the risk for type II diabetes and improves cardiac output.
2. Resistance Training for Heart Health
Doing resistance training, or strength work, for at least two nonconsecutive days each week can give several health benefits. Resistance training helps build lean muscle mass and reduces fat, and can lower the risk for high cholesterol.
While resistance training may feel intimidating at first, it doesn’t mean we have to start pumping iron at the gym. In addition to working out on weight machines, resistance training can mean using free weights or resistance bands, as well as doing body-resistance exercises like squats and push-ups.
3. Flexibility, Balance, and Stretching for Heart Health
While these types of exercises don’t directly affect heart health, they make it possible to stay active throughout our lives. Flexibility, balance, and stretching exercises support musculoskeletal health so that we can keep our heart healthy through aerobic exercise and resistance training long-term. Basic stretching, yoga, and tai chi can benefit musculoskeletal health.
When to Talk to a Doctor About Cardiovascular Disease
Seek emergency medical care right away if a person is experiencing chest pain, shortness of breath, or fainting. It’s likely that someone won’t be diagnosed with cardiovascular disease until they have a heart attack, chest discomfort, stroke, or heart failure. However, it’s possible to catch cardiovascular disease early with regular doctor’s visits. If anyone is experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, talk with a doctor as soon as possible.
Frequently Asked Questions About Cardiovascular Disease
How is cardiovascular disease diagnosed?
When diagnosing cardiovascular disease, the doctor will likely do a physical exam and ask about personal and family history. They will likely do blood tests and chest X-rays, as well as tests specific to the type of cardiovascular disease they suspect the patient might have. These tests include an electrocardiogram (ECG), Holter monitoring, echocardiogram, stress test, cardiac catheterization, cardiac computerized tomography (CT) scan, and cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Can cardiovascular disease be treated?
Yes. Cardiovascular disease can be treated through lifestyle changes, like eating a low-fat and low-sodium diet, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, and limiting alcohol intake. The doctor may also prescribe medications and recommend medical procedures or surgery.
Can cardiovascular disease be prevented?
Yes! Cardiovascular disease chances can be reduced or prevented by eating a healthy diet filled with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and incorporating research-based supplements for heart health. Get enough physical activity with a combination of aerobic exercise, resistance training, and balance, flexibility, and stretching exercises. And lastly, for optimal cardiovascular and overall health, it’s important to find healthy ways to manage stress.
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- Harvard Health Publishing. Heart Health. Harvard.edu. Accessed December 1, 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/topics/heart-health
- Heart-healthy diet: 8 steps to prevent heart disease. Mayoclinic.org. Published January 9, 2019. Accessed December 1, 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-healthy-diet/art-20047702
- Heart disease. Mayoclinic.org. Accessed December 1, 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20353124
- Heart disease. Mayoclinic.org. Accessed December 1, 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20353118