We are finally in week five of the Healthier Heart Challenge. Thus far, the steps in the challenge included getting screened and reviewing family history, starting an exercise program, reviewing and reconfiguring your diet with heart health and weight loss in mind, and tackling sleep issues. The final component of the challenge involves dealing with stress levels.
Stress, especially chronic levels of stress, is associated with elevated cortisol levels and that, in turn, can promote general inflammation in the body. Research suggests a direct link between levels of inflammation and heart disease. Having chronic stress can also instigate emotionally-driven eating, which can lead to obesity, which in turn is linked to heart disease. Chronic stress can also induce people to drink too much alcohol which has been linked to an increased risk of hypertension. Being stressed can also lead to a smoking habit and sedentary lifestyle, both of which raise risk of heart disease.
It's worth mentioning that stress seems to be linked to excess abdominal fat. Not only is that fat somewhat unattractive, it is also considered especially dangerous to heart health. Elevated levels of cortisol may be one cause of fat cells relocating to the abdominal region. This visceral fat, as well as fat that is driven to surround vital organs, has been shown to likely drive insulin resistance and glucose intolerance (diabetes), high cholesterol, hypertension and heart disease.
Part of your stress assessment should include a waist measurement. For men, a waist measurement of 40 inches or higher is considered diagnostic of abdominal obesity. For women, a waist circumference of 35 inches or higher is diagnostic of abdominal obesity.
What are some ways to manage stress? The American Heart Association recommends:
A daily dose of friendship - When you're stressed you need to connect, vent or just be able to feel surrounded by support. Reach out to family, friends, co-workers and share feelings. Make sure they know that sometimes you are not necessarily looking for solutions but just need a healthy outlet. Being social can also help alleviate stress.
Exercise - One of the benefits of the second week challenge is that physical activity helps to lower stress levels and gives you an outlet for your stress. Individuals who regularly engage in physical activity have lower rates of depression. Exercise can also boost mood.
Deep breathing - You are likely familiar with "count to ten" as a way to decompress in a stressful situation. Learning to engage with your breathing, especially deep-breathing, can help you to relax. You can also learn to do visualization along with deep breathing. Breathing exercises can help you to calm down, relax, and focus.
Acceptance - Accept that there are things you can change, and others you cannot. If you're unhappy in a marriage or having job issues, seek counseling. Learn how to manage expectations. Most importantly, release the anger that is building up so that it does not become chronic stress.
Give up or avoid "stress habits" that harm health - Smoking, drinking too much, over-eating (3rd week challenge) are all habits that may evolve to deal with stress. These behaviors can have serious consequences that add to the health consequences of chronic stress. Look for healthier ways to manage stress.
Plan ahead - Stress often arises when we don't proactively plan our day. Being organized and accounting for time that may be needed to troubleshoot when things don't go smoothly can help to manage stress. Anticipate rather than react should be a daily mantra (when possible).
Meet sleep goals - Your 4th challenge was to prioritize and manage sleep time so you get enough quality sleep on a regular basis. Short-changing your sleep schedule can make you more sensitive to stress.
Don't sweat the small stuff - At work and at home it's important to "choose your battles." It's also important to avoid little issues to accumulate and ultimately fester until you finally explode. That festering is chronic stress that is not being managed and we've discussed the harm it can cause to your heart health.
There are also apps that allow you to self-monitor stress. The goal of this challenge is to help you to recognize that managing stress is a key component of heart health. You can become accustomed to stress levels, so it's important to identify stress and then practice stress management.
You've now accepted the last step in our 5 week Healthy Heart Challenge. Next week, look for a final installment that offers a wrap up of the goals of this challenge and some tips to help you troubleshoot any roadblocks. You can achieve optimal heart health.