February is American heart month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that half of all Americans have at least one of the top 3 risk factors for heart disease which are high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking. The good news is these risk factors can be modified. High blood pressure can be managed by a doctor. Eating healthy foods and getting enough physical activity can lower cholesterol and if you are a smoker, when you quit smoking your body will instantly begin repairing itself. Something as simple as making conscious lifestyle choices can truly be lifesaving.
Being active is one of the best things for your heart. “People need to move more and any type of movement counts,” said Dr. Ross Arena, professor and head of the physical therapy department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Kids are being asked to get in motion earlier and earlier. “The timeline moved as the American Heart Association’s recommendation used to be for children over 6 but now it is 3 where they encourage physical activity in those ages as well as for a lifelong active pattern,” said Arena. The goal should be 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity and it can be broken into 10 minute increments if you choose. You have to consider opportunities for movement at both school and home. You can even be an advocate for physical education at school.
Be a role model as a parent. “If adults are not exercising in the home or moving more it becomes a real challenge for kids to think about a physically active lifestyle,” said Arena. To the medical community, fitness matter as much as academics. “We do not think about those things when we think about school performance but at parent-teacher conferences in addition to whether the child is doing well in math and reading you should talk about how they move and their exercise habits and be creative in how you promote movement,” said Arena. Set goals and most importantly, find what your child likes and encourage him to stick with it. “There is a perception of exercise being running on a treadmill or playing a sport so a kid might think that dance or playing on the playground do not count as exercise but it does,” said Arena. The take home message is that moving is good and sitting is bad. Once you discover what works, turn it into a family activity so you can strengthen your bond as a unit as well.
Everyone can improve their fitness regardless of age or level. “There is a 12 minute timed walk/run test that has been around a long time to get baseline fitness and improvements with that,” said Arena. Doctors are starting to take a greater interest in movement because they see the impact it has on overall health. “One of the simplest things is to ask the question of how much you exercise per week and some healthcare systems adopted this where it is the fifth vital sign and in the health record,” said Arena. If you are not comfortable walking or running, speak up to rule out problems. “In kids there can be a suspected genetic cardiac defect or some type of cardiac anomaly like valvular problems or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and in adults suspected coronary artery disease if they are short of breath with activity,” said Arena. This can be determined on the clinical exercise test on a treadmill or bike where the doctor can quantify cardiorespiratory fitness. This reveals whether your heart is getting enough oxygen during exercise. There are many ways to assess heart health.
Be mindful of what you eat as a family. “We are getting to the awareness that there is no one magic diet so it is about minimizing processed foods, refined sugars, fried foods and the amount of meats we have and replacing it with a plant-based diet, fish and so on,” said Arena. The American Heart Association encouraged families to substitute ingredients when cooking at home in order to cut down on saturated or trans fats. Instead of butter you can use margarine; instead of unsweetened baking chocolate you can use unsweetened cocoa powder; instead of whole milk you can use fat-free or low-fat milk with liquid vegetable oil; and instead of sour cream you can use low-fat unsalted cottage cheese plus low-fat or fat-free yogurt. Doctors are trying to think more about cultural aspects of diet because it does play a role. “If you have a diet that is not culturally conducive to a family there is no likelihood of them adopting that diet and there are healthy ways to eat in every culture,” said Arena. Find what foods you like and then make sure they are healthy options. Maintaining a healthy weight matters because carrying extra weight puts stress on the heart.
Be proactive regarding your healthcare and get an annual physical. “We still have this healthcare model that is reactionary where we wait for bad habits or bad health events to happen and try to treat them but it is not an ideal model,” said Arena. It is harder to change unhealthy habits when they have been around for decades. “We are appreciating that a preventive, proactive health system where we keep people healthy where they live, work and go to school is a much more desirable approach,” said Arena. You may not realize it but the school system, work place and even grocery store are parts of the healthcare system. They are places individuals have a chance to be immersed in a culture of wellness and you want to take advantage of those opportunities. The more you integrate in the community the better.
Talk to your child about healthy decisions as you make them. “It is about modeling, showing and immersing him in a healthy life because that is what your family embraces,” said Arena. Understanding the benefits of making good choices can give you an extra boost of encouragement to do exactly that. “There is a convincing body of literature continuing to grow that says leading a healthy life reduces the risk for cognitive conditions such as Alzheimer’s later in life, colon cancer, lung conditions, improves mood and school performance and reduces the likelihood of depression,” said Arena. The heart is just one vital organ but it is a big one. While February is all about the heart, do not be so preoccupied with it that you ignore the other critical things going on in your body. “We focus on heart health but we should not miss all the other things that leading a healthy life does beyond just heart health and I think people are moving in the right direction,” said Arena.
© 2018 Jamie Lober