Heart Healthy Lifestyle Changes

January 29, 2020 by Monica Duvall, MD

Celebrating American Heart Month every February provides an annual opportunity to reflect on our lifestyle choices, and how these impact our cardiovascular health. Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) is the leading killer of both men and women in the U.S. (and increasingly, worldwide).  CVD includes Coronary Artery Disease, Stroke, and Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD).  Many of the biggest risk factors for CVD-related morbidity and mortality are preventable and modifiable.  Smoking, overweight/obesity, poor diet, and inactivity all contribute to increased CVD risk.  Modifying these risk factors, in turn, can prevent/improve other well-known risks, including Hypertension, Diabetes, and High cholesterol.

Smoking is perhaps the biggest modifiable risk factor for CVD—don’t start!  Stopping smoking will start lowering one’s cardiovascular risk within months, and within years, a former smoker’s risk is equivalent to that of a nonsmoker.  It really is never too late to quit, from a cardiovascular perspective.

Improving one’s diet improves heart heath independently, but also by reducing other CVD risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Following a diet which includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber, monounsaturated fats, and foods with a low glycemic index, as well as 2-3 servings of seafood weekly (a great source of omega-3 fatty acids), is advised.  The Mediterranean Diet is a great example of a heart-healthy diet strategy.

Physical activity is one of the most critical tools for reducing one’s CVD risk and for weight loss.  Most experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week for heart health (less if you are exercising more vigorously).  Conversely, studies have also shown that prolonged periods of inactivity, such as sitting at work or watching TV, can increase your cardiovascular risk significantly.  The answer—get up and get moving!   Even lower-intensity exercise such as brisk walking makes a difference.

Making therapeutic lifestyle changes can have a tremendous impact on your cardiovascular health.  It can be daunting to alter longstanding habits, but the benefits are immeasurable.  Enlist help if you need it—see a nutritionist, get a trainer, set up a lunchtime walking date with a coworker or an office appointment to discuss medication for smoking cessation—whatever it takes!   Your heart is worth it!

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