Be Kind to Yourself With Primary Cardiovascular Prevention

Kindness is an incredibly important part of the human experience. Kindness towards others, of course, but also kindness towards ourselves. We are entering into the part of the year when we are often more inclined to be selfless and give, give, give, without turning the tables and directing that same care inwards. I’ve shifted the definition of self-care in my mind and now consider it to be less self-indulgent and more health-focused. How can you better care for yourself than by promoting improved mental and physical health? 

Cardiovascular health is an important consideration for all of us, but I might argue that it is more important for women because it is not what one typically thinks of when they think about women’s health. As a result, women’s cardiovascular screening, treatment and presentation of cardiovascular events (such as MI’s) are not at the forefront of any prevention campaign. 

Heart disease is not a single condition, but a group of conditions affecting the structure and function of the heart with a variety of root causes. These conditions include coronary artery disease, cardiomyopathy, angina, and myocardial infarction (heart attack). There is even a heart condition that is called  “Broken Heart Syndrome” (or stress cardiomyopathy) because it can occur in people after the death of a loved one, or after a particularly stressful life event. There are a lot of different risk factors for developing heart disease, and many of them are within your control. In fact, even if you have a known family history of cardiovascular disease, you can still mitigate that risk, or even reduce the risk of potentially compounding co-existing conditions, such as diabetes. 

Two of the most important things you can do to decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease are to have an active lifestyle and maintain a healthy weight. It is important for adults to incorporate at least 30-40 minutes of moderate aerobic activity,  at least 4x/week (150 minutes/week). The recommendation for those under 18 is to be active for at least 60 minutes daily. It is interesting to think about the difference between activity levels in youth now compared with 20 years ago because we didn’t even need to think about fitting in activity; our lives were active. Things have changed so much that many kids don’t grow up naturally incorporating movement into their lives, and it has had a definite impact (along with diet) on the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in that population. 

Maintaining a healthy weight is more challenging than just including a specific amount of exercise because determining what a healthy weight is for an individual is more subjective. We talk about BMI 
(body mass index) and waist circumference as guidelines for being at a “healthy weight” but they are so limited in terms of accounting for the vast differences that occur in body type and should be used as just that; guidelines. 

Eating a healthy diet is also key in reducing risk and is connected to maintaining a healthy weight, as well as in preventing diabetes, which is another risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It is important to eat a diet that is high in fiber (ideally food based fiber, rather than fiber supplements), low in sugar and refined, simple carbohydrates, and high in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean proteins. Replace table salt with unrefined sea salt and use sparingly, and avoid all processed forms of sodium, including monosodium glutamate (MSG). Most of these recommendations come more naturally when you move towards a whole foods diet, free of any processed foods. 

Not smoking is another way that you can improve the health of your heart and significantly reduce your risk of developing heart disease or having an adverse cardiac event. Of course it is ideal to not start smoking in the first place, but there is a lot of good research supporting the benefits of quitting smoking at any stage of the game. If you are a smoker, quitting smoking is the single most important thing you can do to improve your health and increase your lifespan. 

Stress management may be relatively new to the table when discussing cardiovascular disease risk reduction and management, but that makes it no less important to the topic. Managing stress effectively, particularly when you do it through the practice of yoga, meditation, or any form of martial arts emphasizing deep breathing techniques, will help you to manage hypertension, decrease your risk of a cardiovascular event as well as some types of cardiovascular disease, improve your quality of sleep and improve your overall well-being. Start by incorporating only 10 minutes daily, and you will start noticing benefits within only a handful of days. 

Elevated cholesterol, hypertension (high blood pressure), and diabetes are all risk factors for cardiovascular disease so reducing your risk and/or effectively managing these conditions will be cardioprotective as well. While lifestyle modifications are important to managing risk of a cardiovascular event, sometimes it is also helpful to incorporate medication to help you to manage some of these conditions. There is a lot of good evidence for decreasing both mortality and morbidity by lowering lipids and blood pressure, and managing blood sugar with the use of medication. 

Cardiovascular disease needs more attention, particularly in women and younger and middle-aged adults who perhaps think that these risks don’t apply to them. Be kind to your heart and start thinking about preventing cardiovascular disease now and not in 10 years.