A healthy heart, like most good things in life, doesn’t happen overnight.
Fad diets and fitness spurts can do as much harm as good for a person’s long-term health. They often create unrealistic expectations, promising fast results without the necessary personal growth that sustains lasting health habits.
Lifestyle changes to make your heart stronger require an understanding of the underlying issues that lead to unhealthy patterns. For many people, the negative health habits that lead to poor heart health are coping mechanisms for stress — whether it’s a calendar loaded with obligations or a deeper mental health issue.
Smoking cigarettes, eating unhealthy foods and skipping physical exercise are three of the biggest offenders. Breaking those habits takes a steady approach.
Whatever your barrier, taking the first step to clear it is important as you create a long-term plan for success. Developing new routines isn’t easy, but will help break the patterns that draw you back to bad habits.
If smoking is your release, there are a variety of alternatives that help you beat the urge while you learn new methods to deal with stress. Working with a doctor to find the best short-term nicotine replacement can be the key to breaking the habit, and your heart and lungs will begin working more efficiently once you’ve dropped it.
Swapping out salty snacks for fresh alternatives takes the same kind of dedication. Fast food is a quick option for families with full schedules and finding the time to cook at home can be a challenge. But making a point to grab a bag of carrots instead of potato chips when you’re jumping into the car or hanging around the house makes a big difference. Finding a few go-to recipes that are full of fresh ingredients will also set a pattern of good health at home.
Physical inactivity can have many root causes, but it’s often due to lack of routine or a fear of failure. If you don’t currently get any exercise, planning a 15-minute walk two or three times a week is an important first step. If you already are in the habit of walking, committing to a longer jog or a more intensive workout will keep making your heart stronger.
The key is setting obtainable goals so you’re not setting yourself up for failure. Crash diets may show fast results, but heart healthy weight loss is between 1-3 pounds a week. Hitting the gym hard one weekend may feel invigorating, but it will leave you demoralized when you can’t maintain that pace.
These lifestyle changes are also easier if they’re built on a relationship. Work closely with your doctor or a friend who will motivate and encourage you. Nutritionists can help you better understand the role the food you eat has on the life you lead. There are also apps for your phone that can help you stay accountable for your calorie intake and physical output.
It’s worth the effort. A healthy heart can reduce chronic symptoms and pain, increase your quality of life and set an example for those around you, all while dealing with stress in a healthier way. And when your mental health improves, finding the time and motivation to exercise, eat healthy and ditch bad habits increases.
As we recognize American Heart Health Month this February, we encourage you to set your sights on long-term health goals that begin today.