The heart is a beautiful organ. Even after having seen thousands of hearts in the operating room, it still takes my breath away to see one beating in front of me, pumping life-giving blood to all of the organs of the body. The job of the heart is so seemingly simple and yet the intricate workings of doing that job are so complex. As heart disease has grown to be the biggest killer around the world, physicians like myself who deal with the heart have witnessed the many ways disease can ravage the carefully tuned mechanisms that keep the heart beating. This week we celebrated World Heart Day, and I want to spend a few minutes talking about ways to overcome some of the daily barriers preventing you from keeping this wonderful and important organ healthy.
Smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your heart. Fortunately, many of the smokers I’ve talked to know that. If you’re a smoker, chances are good you’ve already tried to quit or want to. A study done a few years ago by the CDC found that seven out of 10 smokers they interviewed wanted to quit and almost half had tried in the last year. Unfortunately, only about one in 20 succeeded during that year. But don’t let that discourage you. While most smokers fail the first time they try to quit, many succeed in subsequent attempts.
The key to quitting is setting your environment up so that you’re on track for success when you try to quit. That means anticipating the problems you’ll run into once you quit and setting yourself to avoid those pitfalls. Ask your doctor for some nicotine gum to take the place of the mouthfeel of cigarettes. Use a patch to take the edge off of the craving. Ask your employer to ban smoking in the workplace if they haven’t already and avoid smoking hangouts, which can remind you of what you’re giving up. Finally, protect your children from lung and heart disease by banning smoking in your home and making efforts to keep smokers away from playgrounds or schools.
Just like the other muscles of your body, the heart is healthiest when it’s exercised. That means you need to get moving whenever possible and avoid sitting as much as possible get your heart beating and metabolism going. I’ve given you some great strategies on the show about how to do that in the limited time I know many of you have. But there are also easy hacks you can use to turn the things you’re already doing into heart health boosters. Try parking a little farther from work than you usually do to build in a 10- to 20-minute walk every day. You can also pick a lunch spot you have to walk to rather than one that’s close by. Doing one of these will help you hit your weekly minimum for exercise. When you’re talking on the phone, try standing instead of sitting to get your blood moving and muscles working.
Finally, try transforming the family time you already have into active time together. My personal favorite is an evening bike ride through the neighborhood. Given that most Americans watch almost five hours of TV and recorded programs per day, there should be plenty of time to get out and boost your heart health in ways TV time doesn’t.
We talk a lot about healthy eating on the show, but I want you to remember that healthy eating isn’t just about preparing good meals. Most of what determines how well you eat is how well you set up your home and workplace for healthy eating. What snacks are in your cupboard at home? What’s available for lunch where you work? What are you buying at the grocery store? Making good food choices starts with making them available in the first place. When you go to the store, don’t be lured by unhealthy snacks. Think beforehand about what you want to have available at home and only buy those things. Chances are good you won’t find yourself digging into the cookie jar if you don’t buy cookies in the first place.
If your options at work are subpar, try to take action. Talk to whomever is in charge of the cafeteria or snack options and ask for healthier food. In many cases, suppliers don’t order healthy items because they don’t think people want to buy them. If you and your colleagues show them that you’re willing to buy healthy foods, food suppliers will change their practices pretty quickly. You can also make healthy meals at home and bring them with you to work, giving you much more control over what’s in your food. Pick a day of the week to prep meals and package them in advance so that you can just grab and go as you head off to work. Don’t forget to pack some healthy snacks as well!
Remember, with only a few small steps, you can get yourself on track for better heart health now and in the future. I think you’ll find that when you take care of your heart, a lot of other health benefits will follow.