Chevy Chase. Beyonce. Napoleon. The lunch lady. Bruce Lee. Grumpy Cat.
This random assortment of humans (and one animal) all have something in common: hearts. They each have one.
February and hearts go together like PB&J (clearly we’re referring to the greatest love story from The Office, Pam Beesly & Jim…) but we’ll let someone else handle the gooey relationship stuff (we’re looking at you, Russell Stover commercial).
So while February 14th is a reminder to make plans for your figurative heart, the whole month of February is a good chance to think about taking care of your actual, physical heart. You know, that silent partner that is constantly working to keep you alive. Yeah, we’d say it’s worth showing some love.
But you can’t appreciate your heart (or why it’s worth taking care of) without a quick refresher of how it fits into the whole “staying alive” (ah, ah, ah, ah, staying alive, staying alive) scheme.
So let’s take a quick time-out for a top-line refresher.
BIOLOGY 101 (the super-short version): Your heart is both a muscle (has the ability to contract) and an organ (performs a specific function in the body). It is usually about the size of your fist, maybe a little bit bigger, and is situated between your lungs. As the heart pumps (contracts), blood is forced to the lungs where it is oxygenated. This oxygenated blood travels back through the heart and is then pumped out to the rest of the body to supply that oxygen (as well as nutrients) to all of your organs and tissues, which are dependent on receiving those goodies. This steady blood flow also allows your organs and tissues to get rid of carbon dioxide (byproduct of metabolism) and other waste products, which the blood takes back to the lungs for exhalation or to the kidneys for filtering.
All of the blood in your body is completely cycled through this system each minute, thanks to your heart. It is constantly working, without resting, to keep you alive, often beating around 100,000 times a day.
Now tell me that doesn’t deserve a little love and appreciation?
WHY IT MATTERS: Heart disease (a term that encompasses several types of heart conditions, including coronary artery disease which can lead to heart attacks) is the leading cause for death in both men and women in America (accounting for 1 in 4 deaths), and the second leading cause of death for Alaskans specifically, which is why taking steps to prevent heart disease is incredibly important.
Regular exercise is one of those steps. By exercising, just as you are strengthening other muscles in your body, you are also strengthening your heart and making it more efficient. The more blood your heart can pump out with every beat, the less it will have to beat, thereby keeping your blood pressure under control. Along with other benefits, regular exercise also increases the efficiency with which the tissues in your body extract the oxygen from the blood. As you continue to exercise all of these efficiencies will help your heart and your body work better under stress, and we can all use help with that!
SO, FIRST THINGS FIRST. If you’ve decided to show your heart (and in turn, yourself) a little love through a lifestyle change but you haven’t been regularly exercising recently, we recommend talking with your doctor or medical provider. They can do some quick checks to make sure you’ve got a good, healthy foundation from which to start.
Next, check your gear. When working out, some people choose to go the minimalist route and others want the gadgets. It’s really up to you.
Things like heart rate monitors or fitness trackers can be helpful depending on what you’re looking to accomplish. Some of our favorites are: The Accuro Heart Rate Monitor (available at The Alaska Club), Fitbit, MapMyFitness and iWatch. And gear, like a good pair of shoes, can be the make-or-break of any workout. Some people may be hesitant to drop hard-earned money on workout tech or a new pair of running shoes before they know whether or not they’ll stick with certain activities, and we get that. But also remember that these are investments in your training which in-turn is an investment in your heart-health and quality of life, both short term and long term. Some things, like good supportive shoes, can make the difference between enjoying a work-out and finding it agonizingly uncomfortable.
THE ACTUAL WORKOUT: Take 5-10 minutes at the beginning to warm up with some light cardio (walking, jogging) and/or stretching. As we mentioned in the previous post about resolutions, one of the keys to keeping a resolution is making sure that your workouts are interesting, engaging, and challenging. The same thing goes if you’re deciding to be more heart-healthy. So whether you decide to do walking, swimming, jogging, cycling, dancing, or something else, make sure there’s enough variety to keep you interested and motivated. Change up your normal activities every once in a while and try something new. You never know what you might realize you really enjoy until you try it. Once you complete your workout, make sure to close it out with another 5-10 minutes of light cardio and stretching to allow your body to cool down and ease back into its resting rhythms.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Community and accountability can go a long way in helping you stick with your goals of being heart-healthy. Whether it’s through group classes and activities, a trainer who can offer advice and knowledge about more effective work outs, or the virtual community allowed by fitness trackers and apps, find some people that will be part of this initiative with you.
We’ve already established that everyone (including Grumpy Cat) has a heart and therefore needs to keep it healthy, so grab some friends, family members, or even pets (we’d recommend dogs; cats don’t seem like the “working out” type) and get active together.
Your heart will thank you.
We’ve been focusing on the muscle side of the heart and how exercise helps to strengthen it, but it’s also worth mentioning that what you eat can affect your heart-health as well. Your tissues and organs (including your heart) need nutrients to function and when you eat healthy, nutrient-rich foods, those nutrients are absorbed by the blood after the digestion process and transported throughout the body as the heart pumps.
At this point, most Americans have some idea of what generally counts as a healthy diet and what doesn’t, and a lot of it comes down to eating “whole” food (food that has been processed or refined as little as possible and does not have additives or other artificial substances) vs. processed food (the definition can vary but generally covers food packaged in boxes, cans, or bags).
But knowing that and putting it into action are two different things, so when you’re grocery shopping or making plans for meals remember that sugary, high-fat, and overly salty foods are going to put extra stress on your body and your heart. These kinds of foods often lead to weight gain, an increase in blood pressure, and an increase in cholesterol levels (which result in fatty deposits in arteries, blocking blood flow to the heart), all of which contribute to heart disease.
Another way that what you eat (or drink) affects your heart is whether or not it raises your heart rate. Your heart should be working hard when the rest of your body is working hard (like during physical activity). When your body is resting, your heart should be resting (although, still beating, obviously – usually a resting heart rate of 60-100 beats per minute is considered healthy). But some foods and drinks, like items with caffeine and processed sugar, can raise your heart rate even when your body is at rest.
Keeping these factors in mind when making diet decisions can help you decide what helps your heart and what hampers it. There are still ways to have delicious, healthy dinners for Valentine’s Day (or every day, really) so just remember that one way to your heart really is through your stomach.