Welcome to the Healthier Heart Challenge! You’ve committed to taking five weeks to embrace a group of new habits that all have one thing in common – improving your heart health. Your effort has a pretty good chance of success, unlike most New Year’s Resolutions which start Jan 1st and fall apart by January 15th. Pacing your changes will help take the pressure off and allow for some stumbles. These weekly columns will offer a new habit change and provide support as you adopt the new behaviors.
Getting to know your personal heart-health status
If you have not been diagnosed with heart disease, find out about your family history. If you have any close relatives (parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles) who have hypertension, are taking cholesterol medications or have any formal diagnosis of a heart condition, then you may still be at risk. Take note of how many of your current lifestyle habits puts you at higher risk of heart disease. Those habits include:
- High consumption of animal fats (saturated fats) and trans fats
- High consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Low consumption of fruits and vegetables
- Physical inactivity
- High alcohol consumption
- Tobacco use
Other risk factors include carrying too much weight and having diabetes. If you are checking off several of these lifestyle and risk factors, then it’s time for a full health screening. Let your doctor know that you’ve made the decision to embark on a challenge to improve your heart health. Discuss his perspective on your current health and review your blood work and any other screening tests that you’ve taken (ECG, stress test, radiographic screening). Consider the results your baseline. Depending on how well you do with habit changes over the next several months you will likely benefit from some re-testing so progress can be measured. If you do have to lose weight, you may plateau at some moments, which is why it’s important to use other screening tools to measure progress.
What if you’re already diagnosed with heart disease?
If you have heart disease, then you too will benefit from a visit set up with your doctor, so that you can determine your current health status, especially if you are taking medication for high blood pressure, high cholesterol or for a specific heart condition. Let your doctor know that you are finally ready to tackle your weight, or improve some lifestyle factors that have the potential, if you can manage to keep new heart healthy habits in place for a while, to reduce the amount of drugs you are taking or to even get off some medications. Review your most recent tests and vital signs and let the doctor know that you will be making diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes (manage sleep and stress). Let him weigh in on any restrictions involving diet and exercise so if necessary, you can modify any recommendations made in the twelve month program. Given the time frame for the changes, your doctor will assume correctly that we are allowing enough time for each habit to become familiar and feel natural, before we add the next habit.
Schedule a visit with your doctor
Once you see him or her, jot down any specific recommendations or restrictions (diet, exercise). If recommended, also schedule a check-up at the three month or sixth month point or whenever he’d like you to check in. If he gives you the green light, start a walking program. No specific directives this week other than walking daily for at least 10-15 minutes daily. Pencil it into your calendar or put it on your tech device. Try to do it the same time every day which will help it to become habitual. If you already walk – just keep the habit going.
Next: Start a Walking Routine
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”