Heart disease remains the leading cause of mortality in the US. One-fourth of all deaths occur due to a heart problem. Each year about 610 000 people die of the condition, and half of them die due to coronary artery disease caused by arterial plaques. Total deaths due to cardiovascular diseases are around 859 000 when we add deaths related to stroke to these numbers. Another, 735 000 Americans have a heart attack each year.
Most people are aware of the symptoms of the condition like chest pain and discomfort, pain in the arm, stomach, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, cold sweats, and so on.
Heart disease may occur due to many reasons, and most of these causes are modifiable and preventable. High blood pressure remains the most significant contributor to heart disease, followed by high cholesterol and smoking. Other underlying causes of cardiovascular diseases are diabetes, obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity, and alcohol abuse.
Can Heart Health be Improved? Are Heart Diseases Preventable?
Not all heart attacks are avoidable, but a considerable number of them can be prevented or delayed by several years with mere lifestyle interventions. After all, 80% of all heart diseases are due to preventable reasons. CDC says that about 200 000 deaths each year are preventable through lifestyle modification, and in many more cases, such events can be delayed significantly.
Heart health can be improved by non-pharmacological means is a proven fact and not just an opinion. From 1972 to 1992, just in a period of 20 years, Finland was able to reduce mortality due to coronary heart disease by as much as 80%. Ireland reduced mortality due to heart disease by 48.1% from 1985 to 2000.
What Works Better, Medications, or Lifestyle Changes?
Many people may think that taking a statin or low-dose aspirin may help prevent a heart attack. However, they are partially wrong. Lifestyle changes are the primary way to prevent cardiovascular diseases, and medications are just adjuncts. No, medication can help as exercise, dietary corrections, quitting smoking, and so on. In fact, medications may not even work if such changes are not carried out. This means that natural methods are superior in prevention than pharmacological drugs.
Regretfully, many people think that medications alone can save them. One of the reasons for such mindset is that popping up a pill or two a day is much more comfortable than sweating out for an hour in a gym, or planning a diet, cooking at home, and so on.
This is not to say that medications have no value in preventing heart diseases, but they should always be used along with lifestyle interventions. Undoubtedly, controlling blood pressure, diabetes, dyslipidemia, with the help of medications, will make a considerable difference.
Preventing heart disease, improving heart health naturally, will only work when one combines a number of elements into the disease prevention program. Doing one of two things will still help, but not as much as one would like. So, healthy heart program should include dietary changes, daily exercise, stress management, reducing substance abuse, and so on.
Below are some of the ways to improve heart health, and for best results, one should include most of these methods in the heart disease prevention program.
Avoid Sitting for Prolonged Intervals
Researchers know that despite many lifestyle changes, heart diseases continue to rise. It is common to hear that someone has a heart attack despite giving up smoking or doing exercise regularly. It seems that researchers have found the missing link. A new kind of smoking – “prolonged sitting.” New studies show that sitting is now killing more people than smoking. Quite like a high-fat diet, high salt diet, and tobacco, sitting is now seen as an independent risk factor.
Sitting continually for 6-7 hours may neutralize all the benefits of 30 to 60 minutes of exercise. Regretfully, in many cases, people do not have much choice. Most people spend 7-8 hours sitting in front of the screen at the job, then 1-2-hour commuting, and another 2 hours eating, watching television, doing personal tasks in a day. Many people are sitting for 14-16 hours a day. Now add to this time spent sleeping, and one can easily understand the problem. An hour spent in a gym is not enough.
Undoubtedly, exercise is essential for those involved in a sitting job; they cannot afford to miss the gym. However, they should do more than the minimum recommendation of 30 minutes a day. Instead, people should focus on 60 to 90 minutes sessions, that include aerobic training, resistance training. Effect of high-intensity training and resistance training continue for much longer. Further, be more active at weekends by spending more time socializing, walking, trekking, playing sports, and so on.
Take measures at the job too. Try to walk more often or work while standing. One can buy even exercise equipment for the office. Talking to an employer about providing a treadmill may be a good idea. Health and wellness coaches may also help in many cases.
Lose Body Weight
No one doubts that it works, and yet so many people do not succeed in their weight loss program as they put unrealistic or over-ambitious targets. So, start with realistic goals and timelines. Important here is to reduce the fat content of the body while maintaining the lean mass.
Most Americans are either overweight or obese. It means that they have a BMI above 25. However, reducing BMI to 25 may not be realistic for many. Initial plan should be like reducing a pound in a week. Studies show that those who lose body weight gradually are more probable to maintain it.
Further, there is a need to understand that even shedding a few pounds can have a massive impact on health. Studies show that reducing 5 to 7% of body weight can considerably minimize the risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
Best way to reduce body weight is through a combination of diet and exercise. Word “diet” does not mean eating less; it means eating smartly. Instead of high fat or processed foods, people should eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, can also help.
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Lower Bad Cholesterol
LDL is called bad cholesterol as it considerably increases the risk of atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease. High level of triglycerides indicates a diet high in fats, may also show a higher risk of a heart attack. On the other hand, HDL also called good cholesterol, may help reduce plaque formation, keep arteries clean. Thus, one should aim to lower LDL and increase HDL levels.
For reducing bad cholesterol, you do not need to give up all the fats, all you need to do is to switch to better fats. It means avoiding trans-fats and saturated fats (animal fats, especially). Instead consume more polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, that are in abundance in vegetable oils, olive oil, and various seafood items. Fatty fish is regarded as good for health as it is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Other good sources of healthy fats are nuts.
Smoking is among the biggest reasons for coronary heart disease. It is also the leading cause of peripheral vascular disease. Nicotine damages the vascular intima (internal layer), thus increasing the risk of plaque formation. It also means vaping, though safer in comparison to regular cigarettes, will still increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Lower Your Blood Pressure
In 2017, the American Heart Association (AHA) and American College of Cardiology (ACC) revised their guidelines, causing lots of resonance. They lowered the threshold of what was regarded as healthy. Many people were critical of such an approach, as new guidelines now show that more than half of American adults are living with blood pressure above a reasonable limit. As per new guidelines person should take steps to control blood pressure if readings are above 120/80 mmHg.
AHA and ACC decided to revise these guidelines because they realized that blood pressure above 120/80 mmHg was associated with a higher risk of a heart attack. New guidelines also say that elevated blood pressure (120-129 mm Hg systolic and less than 80 mmHg diastolic) should be corrected through lifestyle measures only.
So what lifestyle changes are good for reducing blood pressure and risk of heart disease. One of the most extensive studies to date, published in The Lancet, shows that certain dietary trends are killing millions of people globally. More than four million deaths can be prevented globally, just by reducing salt intake and increasing whole grains consumption.
Other important things to do is to start consuming lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, eat nuts and seeds, increase omega-3 intake (seafood or fatty fish), and eat more dietary fibers.
Diabetes is the major underlying cause of vascular diseases. In urban areas above 10%, people are living with diabetes, and 30% are living with pre-diabetes. Vasculopathy is one of the most common complications of poorly managed diabetes. Regretfully, full-blown diabetes can be only managed with medications in most cases.
It does not mean that lifestyle interventions do not work, but most people fail at them due to harsher requirements in diabetes. Focus on controlling the blood glucose levels with medications, exercise, low carb, and low-calorie diet.
Reduce Chronic Inflammation
Remember that atherosclerosis, vascular plaques, and resulting coronary diseases are the result of low-grade chronic inflammation. This inflammation is caused by diabetes, endocrinal disorders, obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, and so on.
There is no single way to reduce systemic inflammation; it can be reduced through a combination of approaches like a balanced diet, physical activity, stress management, and so on.
Manage Chronic Stress
Stress increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases in many ways. It increases levels of cortisol, increases glucose levels, thus stiffening arteries and promoting atherosclerosis.
- Stress also increases the level of vasopressin, leading to hypertension.
- Stress disrupts the endocrinal system, causing widespread hormonal changes.
- Stress alters sleep pattern, circadian rhythm, which increases the risk of a heart attack.
- Stress also means a higher level of alertness, higher sympathetic activity, heart rate, higher blood pressure.
One of the important things to remember is that many people focus too much on severe stressful situations in life like divorce or other traumatic experience while underplaying the adverse effect of low-level chronic stress caused by frustrations of daily life. Many researchers think that daily stress caused by smaller things may be more harmful that occasional episodes of severe stress.
Further, it is essential to understand that stress cannot harm health if a person responds appropriately. Thus, stress-related illnesses are rather a result of maladjustment to stressors. It means people should learn to neglect a few things, appreciate the importance of socialization, practice mindfulness, and so on.
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To conclude, even taking a single step will help considerably, as doing one thing like reducing body weight may help reduce multiple risk factors. However, embracing all the eight ways to the healthy heart may have a substantial effect on heart health, it may help minimize the risk of heart disease by several times or at least delay it by several years.
Finally, there is also a need to understand that various non-communicable diseases are inter-related. They may seem separate diseases, but they are a continuum of the same kind of problem. It means that measures taken to improve heart health will reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, diabetes, respiratory diseases, and even cancer.
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