In 2020, the terrible toll from the COVID-19 pandemic has largely eclipsed the affliction that remains the leading cause of death in this country: heart disease. In the United States last year, at least twice as many people died of cardiovascular causes as those who died of complications from SARS-CoV-2, the new coronavirus.
While the challenges of the virus are new, experts have been studying heart disease for decades – and anyone can benefit from this knowledge. “Lifestyle habits that keep your heart healthy can also make you less vulnerable to serious complications from infections such as COVID-19 and the flu,” says cardiologist Dr. Deepak L. Bhatt, professor of medicine at Harvard. Medical School and editor of the Harvard Heart Letter.
So what exactly are these heart healthy habits? The American Heart Association calls them “Life’s Simple 7.” Simply put, they are:
1) stop smoking
2) eat better
3) Be active
4) lose weight
5) Manage your blood pressure
6) control your cholesterol
7) lower your blood sugar
Choose three steps to jumpstart heart health this year
But seven steps can seem too much to handle, or even seem overwhelming. So let’s make it even simpler by focusing on just a few. Of course, not everyone needs to lose weight or lower their blood sugar. And the reality is, most Americans don’t smoke, so step one doesn’t apply to a lot of people.
Unfortunately, this is not the case for steps two and three. Most people don’t eat enough plant-based foods like vegetables, whole grains, beans, and fruits. And few Americans get the recommended amounts of exercise. That’s at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking) each week, plus muscle-building activity (like lifting weights) at least two days a week.
Of course, improving both your diet and your exercise set will help you lose weight (step four). But did you know that eating better and moving more can also help you with steps five, six and seven?
Start with a small change, then add
In 2021, do your heart a favor by doing these three things.
Make a small change in your diet. Some Suggestions: Substitute beans for meat in one of your favorite dinner recipes. Eat a slice of whole grain bread instead of white bread. Try a vegetable you’ve never eaten before.
Do an exercise to increase the heart rate for 10 minutes. Some suggestions: Take a quick walk around your neighborhood. Jump on a treadmill or other exercise machine. No machines at hand? Do a few simple gymnastic exercises, such as a combination of jumps, squats, leg lifts, and arm circles.
Know your numbers. These four key values are easy to follow. Step on a scale, then use your weight and height to calculate your body mass index. Measure your blood pressure (many pharmacies have machines). Check your medical records for your latest blood test results, which should include fasting cholesterol and blood sugar values.
Here are the standard objectives:
- body mass index between 18.5 and 25 (see this BMI calculator)
- blood pressure less than 120/80 mm / Hg
- total cholesterol less than 200 mg / dL
- fasting blood sugar (glucose) less than 100 mg / dL.
It is important to note that your individual goals may differ depending on your age and your medical and family history. Talk to your doctor, then work together to reach or maintain these four values within the optimal range for you. This may include taking medication. And in the meantime, start making small changes to your diet and exercise routine. Gradually adding healthier foods and spending more time exercising can really make a difference to your heart and your overall health.
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