Six activities to improve your heart health

Putting heart health in perspective.

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death. The CDC reported that one person dies every 36 seconds in the US from CVD. In 2019, approximately 18.6 million people died from CVD. Heart failure (not pumping as efficiently as it should) is another chronic condition caused by uncontrolled high blood pressure or a heart attack. About 805,000 people have heart attacks in the United States alone, and about 200,000 of those have had previous heart attacks. The average age for heart attacks in males is 65.6 years and 72.0 years for females.

What is a heart attack?

The clinical term for a heart attack is myocardial infarction. Heart attacks occur when a portion of the heart muscle is denied oxygen. Arteries supplying the heart become blocked from the buildup of fat deposits and cholesterol often referred to as a “plaque.” If a plaque breaks, clots can quickly form, which blocks blood from reaching the heart muscles, causing a heart attack. Starving the heart muscles of oxygen is called Ischemia. At this point, heart muscle cells are damaged and can die, with irreversible damage beginning within 30 minutes of Ischemia, showing why early detection and immediate evaluation are critically important.

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Heart attacks can affect individuals differently. Approximately 1 in 4 people experience little to no symptoms. The common symptoms reported are:

  • Chest pain or tightness in the chest. The pain usually presents in the left or center of the chest and can last for a few minutes. The pain may go away and return. Tightness is akin to pressure on the chest or feeling like you are being squeezed.
  • Discomfort or radiating pain in the shoulder or arm. Radiating pain may present differently for each person. 
  • Shortness of breath. Difficulty inhaling enough to satisfy your need for oxygen.
  • Back, neck, or jaw pain.
  • Weakness, dizziness, vomiting, or fainting. It is more common for women to experience these symptoms. 

If you think you might be having a heart attack, call 911. The sooner you can be diagnosed and treated, the less damage your heart attack may cause. Do not be afraid of a “false alarm;” this is a perfect example of “better safe than sorry.”

What contributes to heart attacks?

For most Americans, our lifestyles support less healthy habits like:

  • Fast food consumption- we are busy, and fast food is convenient – it is also loaded with heavily-processed ingredients and an excess of fat and calories.
  • We aren’t active enough- Americans generally live sedentary lives. Between sitting at work and binge-watching Netflix, we may not get the amount of exercise we need.
  • Being overweight- Poor diet and lack of activity can often lead to obesity.
  • Underlying health conditions- The rate of polychronic patients is rising. Polychronic refers to patients with more than three chronic conditions such as diabetes, CVD, chronic kidney disease, hypertension, etc. Most of these conditions can be well-managed or even prevented by working with your Primary Care Provider.

How do I prevent a heart attack?

Prevention is the best course for ensuring good heart health. Medicine is all about risk management, and lifestyle changes reduce your risk of developing poor heart health. Changing patterns of behavior is the path to reaching this goal. Here are six actions you can take–today–to begin preventing the chance of having a heart attack.

It begins with regular check-ups.

Schedule an appointment with your Primary Care Provider and seek their advice on your medical and physical limitations to identify what activities may be right for you. 

Eat healthier foods.

Look a bit closer at your diet. Do you eat enough vegetables and fruits? Try substituting fried foods for baked options. Reducing your caloric intake can lead to weight loss and better cholesterol levels overall. Make a habit of reading food labels and learning more about what you eat.

Reduce your red meat intake. 

Try substituting beef once a week for a fish protein rich in omega-3 fatty acids like Salmon, Cod, Tuna, Trout, etc. If you’re not a fan of fish, omega-3 fatty acids are also present in flaxseed, chia seeds, and fish oil supplements. These fatty acids boost your HDL (the good cholesterol) and improve your heart health.

Get off your seat.

When sitting for extended periods, get up and stand for a while. Perhaps during breaks in the workday or commercials, you can walk around your office or home. Standing for even a brief time can improve circulation and give you most of the benefits of regular daily activity. Set a reminder to get up and move every hour if you work at a desk. 

Start an exercise program.

You don’t have to join a gym to exercise. Your exercise program should consider your age, physical ability, and overall health. Discussing an exercise program with your doctor during your physical exam is wise. Your doctor can provide insight into what exercise programs will work best for you. Some examples of exercise programs that may appeal to you are:

  1. Yoga – Yoga is a wonderful low-impact way to build strength, improve flexibility and balance, and get a workout!
  2. Water Aerobics/Exercise – Water exercise is a fun activity that is great for people with limited mobility. The water helps offset weight, making it easier to stand. Also, the water can work as resistance, helping to build strength.
  3. Bike riding – Riding a bike is ideal for those that want to get out and adventure. Today electric motor assist bikes like Rad Power Bikes can help riders of all levels tackle hills and other obstacles that often deter people from riding bikes. Stationary bikes can afford much of the same benefits without worrying about the weather.
  4. Walking – Walking is easier on your joints as there isn’t as much impact compared to running. Power walking is walking at a brisk pace to elevate one’s heart rate. Weight-bearing exercise like this is also important for bone density and joint health.
  5. Weightlifting – Regardless of your physical condition, lifting weights is a great form of exercise. A trainer helps ensure you have the proper technique to avoid injuries and construct a training program that yields the best results. A word of caution: if you have not lifted before or have just started, consider hiring a personal trainer.
  6. Manage stress levels – Stress strongly influences multiple health conditions, and acute stress can even trigger a heart attack. But, how does one actually ‘manage’ stress? If you are prone to stress and it seems that it’s a common occurrence in your life, you may want to consider seeking professional help from a behavioral therapist. Therapists can offer help through tools like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help you manage stress by re-focusing on less stressful narratives.

Nearby resources

Several facilities in the area offer classes for all ages, especially seniors. Start with your local YMCA for exercise class offerings.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services publishes a resource guide for seniors.

American Heart Association (Omaha Chapter) lists local events which are usually free or very inexpensive. 

The most important takeaway is it’s never too late to begin taking care of your health. Start by making an appointment with your Primary Care physician and start down the path of heart-healthy habit-forming. Need a Primary Care physician? Visit our Meet your Doctor page!

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