February is National Heart Health Month. If you’re already deep into the Five Week Healthier Heart Challenge then you are poised to continue engaging with the habits that promote heart health. If you haven’t started the challenge, embrace the heart health theme this month and get started.
The challenge is set up so that each week you adopt or address one new behavior that will improve your heart health. Of course, you can also take a longer period of time to incorporate each new habit – the idea is to replace habits that undermine heart health with habits and approaches that optimize heart health.
To review the program: Step one is to understand your family history for heart disease, your current state of health and to identify any co-morbid conditions that could contribute to earlier heart disease. If you already have disease, you may not be engaging with a doctor, or be consistent with therapeutic recommendations, so getting baseline measurements of your health will offer insight and motivation.
The next steps were to addressexercise, diet,sleep and stress. These habit “pillars” can lower heart disease risk. If you have a strong family history for heart disease, intentional surveillance (seeing a healthcare professional regularly) and adopting heart healthy habits can help to delay onset and possibly minimize intensity of disease. Your biggest obstacle to heart health is sustaining those new habits, long term.
Here are some scenarios you may encounter and possible solutions.
You stop seeing a healthcare provider – financial obstacles and time obstacles are likely the biggest roadblocks.
Solution: If you are self-employed then check out healthcare.gov to see if there is an affordable program that you can subscribe to. Check to see if there’s a free clinic nearby. If finding time to see your provider even on an irregular basis is the challenge, then you might need to get more organized and really plan for that visit. Follow up screenings are crucial to helping you to track progress and maintain habits.
You disregard screening results that suggest you’re not maintaining some or all of the recommended heart healthy lifestyle habits.
Solution: Denial is not heart helpful. In fact, if that’s your roadblock, you need to figure out “why” you’re in denial. Are you being asked to change too many behaviors too quickly so you’ve abandoned the entire program? Are you exercising and justifying excess eating?? Be kind to yourself but get real. Keeping a food and exercise diary can help to keep you on course. Gift yourself small rewards when you hit certain time milestones.
You diet falls apart – life gets in the way or meals are boring and tedious
Solution: One way to take charge of your healthier eating is to plan – prepare – portion food ahead of time. Cook a week’s worth of food on the weekend and make your meals easy to grab. Switch out proteins - chicken and fish one week, beans and tofu next, eggs and high protein pasta next. Go online and decide which fast food outlets offer takeout meals that meet low sodium/low fat/low sugar criteria. You need to keep variety within the healthy guidelines.
You’re struggling to fit in exercise or it’s become a monotonous commitment.
Solution: Chart exercise in your daily planner so it becomes part of everyday life. Set alarms on your smartphone so you do small ten minute increments throughout the day. Have resistance bands and free weights at home for inclement weather. Try new classes, try out new gyms, find an exercise group in your neighborhood, or buddy up with co-workers for lunchtime workouts. There has to be variety and some fun.
Some of your family, friends or co-workers seem to be sabotaging your efforts
Solution: When you lose weight or gain control of your life it can be threatening to others. You’re getting your life together and prioritizing your health, while they can’t seem to get motivated. Or sometimes a spouse may feel that you no longer depend on them. You need to recognize these behaviors in others and decide how you want to respond. Do not let others’ insecurities derail your progress.
Stress is creeping back into your life
Solution: By adopting these habits you are in a sense putting some pressure on yourself so pace the changes and be aware of the dangers of trying to manage too many habit swap outs in a short period of time. This is another scenario that can be helped by being organized and prioritizing.
You were sleeping well for a while but you’re losing consistently
Solution: Are you following the sleep hygiene recommendations? It’s easy to slack off and work on your computer in bed or watch TV late into the night or eat late dinners. Maintaining a proper sleep schedule can be really hard, but the heart health payoff is huge. Keep reviewing the rules of good sleep habits. Be aware when you are starting to re-engage in the behaviors that undermine sleep.
The program in totality just seems “too much” for you to sustain
Solution: This healthy heart challenge was meant to be a template that you use as a guide to help you to make better lifestyle-driven decisions. You can take the recommendations made each week and personalize the suggestions to your needs. Your biggest challenge is to believe that you need to adopt new behavior and that you’re worth the time and effort necessary to commit to this healthy heart program. Be realistic about the habits you can commit to and set up personal and professional environments that support those habits. Let this month’s theme of heart health inspire you to change.