Did you know February is American Heart month which aims to raise awareness about heart disease, which is the #1 cause of death in Americans? Did you also know that 1 in 3 women are diagnosed with heart disease annually? Think about that...that's ALOT of women struggling with a disease that to some can be thought of as a "man's disease"only. This Friday February 5, is also National Wear Red Day which is part of the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women initiative to raise awareness of heart disease in women which is sometimes referred to as the "silent killer."
Three years ago I attended AHA's Go Red Luncheon in San Francisco and was so inspired by all the stories I heard from doctors and other business leaders in the community who are advocating for heart health. One story in particular from a young female doctor resonated with me as I was at this point starting to struggle with chronic stress symptoms and burnout. She proceeded to to talk about her trajectory through her young life with a dream of one day becoming a doctor. She worked hard to get into a top medical school, but pushed herself so hard over the course of her 8 year journey that she began to suffer in silence with multiple health issues that were all later linked to chronic stress. "But aspiring doctors don't complain about stress," she said (or really anything) so she muddled through it graduating with honors and landing a job at one of the top teaching hospitals in the country. But due to the chronic stress that lasted years she was eventually diagnosed with early stage heart disease at the young age of 37. The good news is she lived to tell her story (obviously) and now advocates to help other young doctors with stress management and other life style changes that keep our hearts alive and strong.
Awareness of heart health in 2021 is even more important due to the impact of the coronavirus on public health including potential harmful effects on the heart and vascular system, according to recent research. The American College of Cardiology now knows that COVID can damage the heart, and estimates that 40% of COVID-19 patients with serious enough symptoms to be hospitalized have some form of heart disease. During the pandemic many people have also delayed or avoided going to the hospitals for heart attacks and strokes which caused the AHA to create Don't Die of Doubt which that reminds the public that hospitals are the safest place to go when you are having symptoms. Lastly, while in lockdown, burnout and chronic stress symptoms have skyrocketed leading to unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as eating poorly, drinking more alcohol, increased rates of smoking, and not enough physical activity, that can all contribute to heart disease.
The AHA recently published their Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics – 2021 Update and reports that nearly 18.6 million people across the globe died of cardiovascular disease in 2019, the latest year for which worldwide statistics are calculated. That's a 17.1% increase over the past decade. And 523.2 million cases of cardiovascular disease were reported in 2019, a 26.6% increase over 2010.
As a health coach who talks to and see's women everyday who are struggling with chronic stress, anxiety, and burnout, I usually tell the young doctors story to them at some point over the course of our coaching sessions. Not to scare them per se, but to encourage them to slow down, to take care of themselves, to manage their stress, to set better boundaries, and to say no more. The Mayo Clinic highlights that chronic stress can lead to a number of health risk factors including hypertension which puts you at risk for heart disease.
So as we celebrate our hearts this month here are:
5 Easy Ways to Strengthen Your Heart in 2021
1 Eat The Rainbow
Numerous studies show that a healthy diet is linked to a stronger heart. Instead of nitpicking over calories and writing down everything you eat, aim for a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables in your diet. Try cooking or experimenting with one new vegetable or fruit per week. This guide is a great resource with lots of ideas which you can even post to your fridge. From smoothies to roasting to steaming there are alot of fun ways in the kitchen to incorporate more colorful foods into your diet.
2. Increase Your Movement
Easier said then done during lockdown and while many of us are working from home, but adding in new and different movements throughout the day even if it's for only 10 or 15 mins will go a long way to keeping your heart healthy. The Peleton app has an amazing variety of content for any level and any time period, and is offering a 30 day free trail...no bike required. Their 10 min stretch classes make for a good zoom break! A foam roller is also a great tool to add to your at home office and is another great 10 min movement option.
3. Know Your Emotional Triggers
Emotional stress can be just as damaging on the body as physical stress. When we feel overwhelmed with worry, fear, anger, or sadness for prolonged periods of time this can cause the stress hormone cortisol to go out of balance, which can lead to a myriad of different health issues including high blood pressure. Navigating difficult relationships, reliving a past trauma, and even watching the news with it's continuous flow of negative headlines can trigger an emotional response depending on the individual. Seeking help from a trained therapist, starting a mediation or gratitude practice, and journaling can all be helpful tools to managing high levels of emotional stress.
4. Increase Self-Care to Reduce Stress Levels
In a society where expectations to always be on 24/7 are extremely high, I am a huge advocate for increasing self-care, especially during such a difficult time in the world. Making time for yourself can be hard and takes practice, but is necessary to bring stress levels down. Experiment what self care means to you (it's different for everyone). Write down 5 things that make you happy and try to incorporate 1 or 2 of them into your life per week. Maybe it's as simple as lighting a candle or adding a diffuser to your home office. It doesn't have to be hard or expensive. This recently published book, A Complete Guide to Self Care, provides 100 accessible ways to practice self-care and makes for a beautiful coffee table or office shelf display book!
5. Monitor Your Blood Pressure
Buying a blood pressure arm cuff off amazon (or at your local drugstore) should be added to your priority list of to do's, along with educating yourself on what a normal read looks like. Check out this guide for tips. Most of us don't take our blood pressure unless we are at the doctor or end up in the hospital so I highly recommend to all my clients that are busy with their careers and may be suffering from any stress related health issues that they monitor this themselves, and then speak to your health professional should you get any high (or low) reads.
If you are interested in gaining more heart health and stress reduction tools please contact Sperry Wellness for more information. Or if you are interested in becoming more involved with the American Heart Association or donating, please check out all the links above.
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