A properly functioning heart is something that can easily be taken for granted. In healthy people, it pumps as it should, delivering needed blood throughout the body. The integral work it does goes almost unnoticed.
But in people who have heart problems, the function of this vital organ is something that’s almost always on their minds.
Due to genetics and other uncontrollable factors, there are people who are more prone to heart conditions than others.
But there are also those who have heart trouble because of their lifestyles, and simple routine changes can have a dramatic impact on heart and overall health.
Paula Dittrich, exercise physiologist at Fairview Lakes Medical Center in Wyoming, explained modifiable heart health risk factors include diabetes (Type 2), smoking, high cholesterol, hypertension, stress and obesity.
She works with cardiac rehabilitation patients at the Fairview Lakes Medical Center’s Wellness and Exercise for Life program in Wyoming.
The program is tri-fold: exercise, education and relaxation.
She noted exercise is an important component for people who have heart conditions, and the goal of the exercise component of the WEL program is to get patients to make a “habit” of being active.
When patients first visit the WEL program after being given a referral from a doctor, they might only be able to do a few minutes of exercise, but Dittrich said most patients are doing about 45 minutes of exercise by the last of the 24 sessions.
Twenty-four is an important number, she noted.
“That’s the magic number,” she said. “Habits start to form after 24 times of doing something.”
Dittrich said she and other exercise physiologists offer education to patients about how they can stick to their workout routines and what type and intensity of exercise they should be doing to help their heart health.
The staff at the clinic also views relaxation as a very important component of heart rehabilitation.
“We do an entire class on relaxation techniques,” she said. “We do some progressive muscle relaxation in combination with yoga. It’s a little routine that I made up that’s safe for cardiac patients.”
She added, “We are probably one of the few (hospitals) in the nation that has a psychologist who comes and talks with our cardiac rehab group once a month. We do a whole class on the effects of stress.”
When Dittrich wants to get across to people the importance of exercise, she sometimes uses a quote from the late Dr. Robert N. Butler, former director of the National Institute on Aging: “If exercise could be packed in a pill, it would be the single-most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.”
Diet’s role in heart health
Just as important as exercise for heart health is diet, according to Rachel Baar, clinical dietitian at Fairview Lakes Medical Center.
“An overall healthy diet can help people — it can help with heart disease and it can also help with other comorbidities,” she said.
She said people should strive for a diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
“With fruits and vegetables, the goal is five to nine servings a day,” she said.
Baar noted some people might think only raw vegetables have enough nutrients in them, but that isn’t the case.
“There are some vegetables that might be more nutritious if they’re cooked, which is the case with lycopene, which is in tomatoes.”
Baar said when it comes to fruits and vegetables, the more, the better.
“There’s no bad vegetable; there’s no bad fruit,” she said.
Baar said serving size is key when it comes to a healthy diet. People can still have the sweet foods they like, but they should keep in mind how many calories sugary foods contain.
“Instead of drinking that can of Mountain Dew that has 170 calories, you could be eating an apple or an orange and maybe some type of protein to go along with that,” she said. “(Sugar-packed foods) are just taking the place of other things that you could eat that are healthier.”
For heart and overall health, Baar had a couple of final tips.
The first: Get your kids in the kitchen at an early age and teach them how to make nutritious meals. She said people who know how to cook generally lead healthier lifestyles.
The second: Don’t get discouraged about your diet if you have days when you’re not eating very healthy.
“Every day is not going to be perfect, and that’s not what we’re looking for,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a perfect diet. There are going to be some fun days in there when you have more food than other days. If you pay attention to your body, it will level itself out.”