heart drawingFebruary is Heart Month! There is a lot of conflicting information out there regarding what needs to be done to maintain heart health but a couple of things are very clear: diet and exercise are the way to go!

But even there you seem to get conflicting information re: the best combination of diet and exercise. The problem is that a lot of the information is geared towards one particular group or another and the reality is that, although exercise and diet modification are beneficial for all of us, we are all unique and the modifications that we do are going to effect us somewhat differently.

So when you hear about a fantastic new way to do something that has totally worked for a group of people, it may just be that those modifications DID work for those people. However, every new fad comes with success stories. The real question is – who did this fad/modification NOT work for?

If you want to go with the latest fad diet or workout, feel free. Hopefully, you find success with it. But if you don’t, don’t worry. Another one will come your way and it will probably be the exact opposite of what the first one was (remember the low fat/high carb diets of the early ‘90’s? And then the low carb/high protein diets of the late ‘90’s?).

In the meantime, if you want some good, solid advice that actually works for 97.5% of the population, then please read on. (In science we never claim 100% so when you see something claim to be 100% effective – be very cautious!)

  1. Exercise every day. Your heart is a muscle and it will strengthen with the exertion placed upon it. According to the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines, we require 150 minutes of activity a week. Originally, the guidelines were quite regimented as to what was required but instead of people seeing the regimented guidelines and saying, “Oh good, now I know exactly what to do”, people did the exact opposite and said, “Oh no, I didn’t do my minimum 20 minutes of moderate intensity cardio at 70-85% of maximum heart rate plus 5 minutes warm-up and 5 minutes cool-down so I should just stop trying.”

People thought that you had to be a jock to be physically fit but in reality, you need to be capable of moving. We will discuss what type of exercise you should do in a later post but for now, just get moving every day!

  1. Choose active alternatives in between workouts. Cross training is one of the most important principles of fitness. Different activities use different muscles and different energy systems so you end up with a more balanced body that is more resistant to injury and fatigue. For the more outdoorsy types, active alternatives may be hikes and fitness trails (check your local parks network). For people just trying to fit something into their already busy-enough day, this could be taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking on the escalator, parking far away from where you need to be or doing push-ups, planks and squats in your office to get yourself moving. Anything that makes blood flow is good for your heart health. Just do something that increases your heart rate!
  1. Eat colourful veggies and fruit. Vegetables and fruits have micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and phytochemicals in them that help maintain normal blood pressure, prevent the oxidation of cholesterol and maintain blood vessel elasticity and health. However, different colours tend to be associated with different nutrients. In general, the deeper the colour the more of that micronutrient/phytochemical there is. So try to have as colourful a plate as possible. And remember – at least ½ your plate should be veggies!
  1. Include a moderate amount of healthy fats/oils. We have all heard that fat is bad for us, but there are good fats and then there are not-so-great fats. The reality is that we even need saturated fats! It’s true! We need it for proper nerve signaling (like the electrical system in our houses, if there is something wrong with the wires you won’t be able to turn on the lights), bone strength (it helps with the absorption of calcium) and immunity (foreign body recognition by white blood cells). But we need to look at the sources of this saturated fat and how much of it we are eating. Ten percent of our total caloric intake should come from saturated fats, such as those found in coconut oil and small amounts of animal based products.

For more on healthy fats/oils, go to our post on Supporting Healthy Eating and Weight Loss – The Next 5 Things on Your Food Label that You Need to Understand.

  1. Manage stress. From the ER doc to the stay-at-home mom, everyone has stress. It comes from different sources but it should never be minimized. It has a devastating impact on the body if not dealt with in a healthy manner: increased blood pressure, increased cortisol levels and rapid heartbeat.

With stress, it is not the amount or source that is important, but the perception of stress and whether we deal with it. This is the hardest thing to do because it’s a deeply personal decision. Some people like to commune with nature by going for a walk in the woods or around a body of water. Others enjoy meditation or yoga. Still others find that exercise helps them relieve their stress. Honestly, all of these suggestions help with the stress response but it’s only as effective as its use. If you aren’t truly enjoying your ‘prescribed’ method of dealing with stress then try something else. It is always good to have different ways to deal with it in different surroundings, ie. At home, at work, at the airport. Whatever you decide to do, you should feel a sense of relaxation and ‘Aaaaaahhhhhhhh’ at some point during or after it.

Heart disease is only one of a combination of inflammatory diseases that tend to occur together due to Metabolic Syndrome (aka Syndrome X). Metabolic Syndrome is a group of risk factors that are, in most cases, totally preventable. They are: high blood pressure, high blood sugar, unhealthy cholesterol levels and abdominal (particularly visceral) fat.

The 5 Top Habits that we have listed address all of these preventable risk factors so start implementing them today!

How are you working these habits into your day?

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Leah Esplen, MSc (Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology) enjoys moving and eating well but is aware of the challenges that people (including her) face to do so. Her mission is to take the b.s. out of nutrition and fitness information to make it more ‘palatable.’ She believes anyone can make changes to improve their health, as long as they know the right changes to make. When not teaching in the BPK department at SFU, Leah can usually be found presenting at fitness conferences, teaching fitness instructors or teaching MommyMoves® PreNatal and Mom & Baby fitness classes. Amazingly, Leah is not perfect. She wrestles with chronic injury and finding the right combination of nutrition and physical activity to maintain her own health.