We have hit that awkward time of year where the New Year’s resolutions are starting to lose their appeal. The cigarettes are still off-limits, but that lunchtime salad has turned into a regular slice of pizza, and your presence at the gym is getting rarer, while your treadmill at home is collecting more dust than miles. But those heart healthy resolutions and habits need to stick with you throughout the year.
“Our weight and the amount of exercise we get have a direct impact on our heart health,” said Army Lt. Col. Todd Villines, the cardiology consultant to the Army Surgeon General and a practicing cardiologist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, contributing to one of every three deaths, but eating right and getting the proper amount of exercise can make all the difference.”
To start, Villines pointed to what’s on our plates. One of the biggest issues is the amount of saturated (unhealthy) fat in our food, which ends up in our bloodstream in the form of cholesterol. Major sources of saturated fat include red meats and cheeses. “Those foods raise your cholesterol level, which in turn clogs arteries with plaque and increases blood pressure. High blood pressure then puts the heart under more stress, making it vulnerable to heart failure and cardiac arrest,” he said.
However, we can’t eliminate saturated fat from our diets completely, because foods that are good sources of healthy fats – olive oil, peanuts, salmon – also contain some saturated fat. If you cut back on red meat and dairy products, it is important to replace them with those foods containing healthy fats and not with foods that are high in refined carbohydrates, such as added sugars and refined flour. In addition, increasing intakes of beans, vegetables and whole grains – not the white flour in so many processed baked goods – will help get you back on track to better heart health. But diet alone won’t do it all.
“Exercise is the cornerstone for preventing cardiovascular disease,” said Villines. “Even just modest levels of physical activity done consistently can help.”
The National Institutes of Health recommends at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week or 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. Activities can be as simple as a brisk walk of at least 10 minutes. Villines said you don’t have to become a gym rat to get some benefit. “You don’t need a personal trainer. Just do something nearly every day of the week.”
In addition to this advice on diet and exercise, Villines pointed to the Army’s Integrative Cardiac Health Project, which provides service members with valuable tools to help recognize the risks for cardiovascular disease along with strategies to improve and sustain healthy lifestyle behaviors. Also, the Military Health System website makes resources available on its Heart Health page.
“We know it’s sometimes tough to adopt the eating and exercise habits needed to maintain a healthy heart,” said Villines. “But you need to look at it as a long-term investment for you and your family. Recent research has consistently shown that how you’ve lived your life [with regards to diet, activity, and control of cholesterol and blood pressure] before age 50 has a tremendous impact on your risk of developing heart disease and strokes over a person’s lifetime.”
By: Military Health System Communications Office