Can you relate to this 33-year-old man’s story:
Last Friday, I hopped on a train and made the two-hour trek to my sister’s to dog-sit for the week. While the train ride itself was enjoyable, the trip certainly didn’t start out that way. In fact, it began with a scary incident.
After sleeping through my alarm, I hurriedly packed a bag, brushed my teeth, printed off my train ticket, and phoned a cab. I was, admittedly, frazzled and worried about making it on time. Once on the road, I noticed some discomfort in my chest when breathing. And then it got worse. I took half-breaths to avoid the pain, and immediately my mind starting racing. Soon, worst-case scenarios entered my mind … ‘Am I having a heart attack?’
Now, the rational part of my brain probably could have calmed me down with some facts – notably, that a heart attack would be pretty rare at my age (though certainly not out of the question), that I have no family history of heart disease, and that my stress levels were high trying to make my train. But when you’re having chest pains, ‘rational’ thoughts are of little comfort.
The reality was he didn’t have a heart attack. Who knows what caused his chest pain that day, but my guess would be stress.
On top of stress, chest pain can be caused by a number of other factors completely non-cardiac related, including gastroesophageal reflux disease (acid reflux), muscular issues, and stomach ailments (such as ulcers), as well as anxiety or depression.
My friend’s experience may not have been a heart attack that day, but it did get him thinking about his heart and how to avoid actual heart problems in the future. And the truth is, it’s something we should all be at least aware of.
And when it comes to your heart—to borrow a sports analogy—sometimes the best defense is a good offense. In other words, the best idea is to take charge of your situation and improve the lifestyle factors that can contribute to a healthy heart.
7 things you can do for your heart:
- Maintain a healthy weight:
Extra weight can increase the risk of heart attack and heart disease. Your ideal weight is unique to you, given your body type and a number of other factors. A good measurement to look at includes your waist circumference (most men should aim for below 37 inches, and most women should shoot for below 31.5 inches). Getting your body composition tested is another helpful way to figure out what your ideal weight should be.
- Get rid of belly fat:
Where you carry excess weight can be just as important as how much weight you carry when it comes to your heart health. Studies have shown that shedding belly fat can reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke (as well as diabetes and a whole host of other diseases).
- Eat a heart-healthy diet:
This means lots of vegetables, some fruit, and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (for instance, salmon and tuna). Cut way down on processed foods (foods with more than a couple ingredients. Similarly, if there are ingredients on the ingredient list that you have never heard of or can’t even pronounce, chances are it’s pretty processed), refined sugars and trans fats. Ditch sugary beverages altogether, and limit alcohol consumption. Choose healthy fats, like nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil and coconut oil.
Strength and endurance training is known to lower blood pressure, improve your (bad) cholesterol levels, and prevent heart disease. High intensity intervals has also proven positive to heart health.
- Minimize stress:
While it may be easier said than done in today’s fast-paced world, reducing your stress levels is vitally important when it comes to your heart health. Long-term stress can cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure that may damage the artery walls. Stressful emotions like anger and hostility can also lead to heart attack risk, so find tools to keep those emotions at bay.
- Know your numbers:
Your weight isn’t the only important number when it comes to knowing your risk of heart disease. If you’re at risk, you should have your blood pressure checked routinely, especially as you age, as well as your blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels.
- Watch your sleep:
Getting enough sleep (7 to 8 hours) and maintaining a regular sleep routine are important for your heart health (and your overall health in general), but you should also take notice of snoring, which could be a sign of sleep apnea. One in five American adults has at least mild sleep apnea, which is a condition that causes pauses in breathing during sleep. If not properly treated (usually through a CPAP machine), sleep apnea can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. If you (or your partner) suspect you might have sleep apnea, go for an overnight sleep study and find out.
This isn’t to say it’s time to be paranoid about your heart health and rush to your doctor’s office for tests. It’s simply to say be vigilant and take care of your body through good sleep, healthy food and a good dose of fitness.