While February has Valentine’s Day as a heart-centered day, it also is American Heart Month, as recognized by the American Heart Association. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and there are many things that each of us can do to improve our heart health.
Taking care of your heart is really a two-fold thing. First, there’s the focus on the actual heart itself and making it strong and healthy. This is done through a combination of dietary choices, exercise habits and stress management. We can eat all the healthy food in the world but if we’re constantly stressed, that can lead to high blood pressure (hypertension) and can put a strain on our heart.
As a yoga teacher, I know that yoga has a tremendous ability to lower blood pressure through deep breathing. It has nothing to do with complicated poses and everything to do with rhythmic breath. Many students leave class feeling relaxed and for the first time, really feel connected to their body.
Here are some tips to keep your physical heart healthy:
Do some kind of regular exercise: While yoga is wonderful, the benefits of exercise are not limited to yoga. Running, going for a brisk walk or to the gym has the same stress-busting effects. Look in your neighborhood for deals run by your local gym or yoga studio or find a neighbor or nearby friend and start training for a spring road race.
Eat lots of fruits and vegetables and limit your intake of red meat: The more you can do to increase your intake of heart-healthy foods, you’ll lower your chances of developing high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. Locally, you can shop farmer’s markets when in season or even try one of the Community Share Agriculture programs. Also, a local Boston resource to try for delivery of fresh fruits and vegetables is Boston Organics. They’ll deliver organic produce to your door (www.bostonorganics.com). What could be easier?
Meditate: Sitting still in silence is critical to decreasing stress. Disconnecting from the TV, computer and smartphone gives the brain a much-needed rest. Many local yoga studios hold classes in meditation or will connect you with teachers who will work with you privately.
Get a physical: Too many people wait until there is a problem before going to their general practitioner. Make yearly appointments to get a physical. This will include checking your blood pressure and cholesterol, weight and blood work. These tests all are indicators of heart health and can help you get ahead of a problem that’s brewing.
Break those bad habits that create heart problems: Things like smoking, eating a lot of red meat, high-stress habits such as addiction to technology (called “Inability to Switch Off”) can all create heart disease. Sign up for a smoking cessation program, look for ways to limit your meat intake, such as only eating it on the weekend and leave your computer out of the bedroom can decrease some of the time you spend online.
The second aspect of taking care of your heart recognizes that the heart is the organ of emotion and intuition. When we live with anger, jealous and hatred, we’re putting a strain our heart as well.
Here are some tips to keep your emotional heart healthy:
Make peace with those around you: If you’re holding a grudge, let it go. If that takes owning up to a wrong, do it. If it takes letting something slide so you can be at peace, do it. It’s better to be healthy than angry.
Say what’s on your mind: Holding back what’s on your mind, not being clear with those around you, waiting for the “right” time to have a difficult conversation can all lead to pressure in the chest not from physical heart issues but more from an emotional strain.
Don’t take things to heart: Otherwise known as “don’t take things personally” this adage from a book called “The Four Agreements” by don Miguel Ruiz is a wonderful reflection of the fact that we have no control over other people but we can control our emotions and reactions to their actions. Rather than living in drama, stay in your own body and breath and move through life without taking on the burden of everyone else’s issues.
Despite the focus of Valentine’s Day being on romantic love, remember that the greatest love you can have is love of yourself. Take a moment each day to appreciate and acknowledge what you love about yourself.
About this column: Tips on how to foster personal health and wellness.