Prioritize Heart Health — and Show Yourself Some Love This Valentine’s Day
You've been seeing hearts everywhere for the past few weeks, and with good reason: Valentine's Day falls on Feb. 14th. But they're also a good reminder that February is also American Heart Month — and Dr. John Osborne, a Dallas-based cardiologist and expert for the American Heart Association, says we should all be taking heart health more seriously.
"Nearly 900,000 people die from cardiovascular disease, strokes, heart attacks, etc. every year in the U.S.," he says — accounting for more fatalities each year than cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease combined.
Luckily, Osborne says that there are many (simple!) steps you can take to give your heart health a boost – and what better time to do so than Valentine's Day? Here are some expert-backed ways to show your heart a little extra love this month.
Take a walk
Instead of ordering your sweetie a bouquet from the local flower shop this Valentine's Day, Osborne challenges you to turn the activity into a heart-healthy outing. "Take a walk and legally pick wildflowers or whatever flowers are appropriate," he says.
Not really "flower-picking season" in your neck of the woods? You can still grab your partner's hand and venture out on a nature walk to "stop and smell the roses." This, says Osborne, is a great way to help you to hit the American Heart Association's recommendation of 150 weekly minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity.
Embrace dining in
The pandemic has caused many couples to pivot from their typical plans of dining out on February 14th, but Osborne says there are health benefits to this. "When we eat out, the meal tends to be pretty high in sodium, as well as other things like saturated fats and cholesterol," he explains. "Cooking at home can be much more romantic and on top of that, you'll actually eat better." He advises opting for chicken or fish over red meat, and incorporating the holiday's color scheme with red fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, beets, or watermelon.
Make dessert count
If you're gifting chocolates this year, skip milk or white and opt for the heart-healthy variety. "Dark chocolate has been shown to modestly lower blood pressure and may provide some other cardiovascular benefits," explains Osborne. But he says to eat it sparingly: "Usually a square or two of dark chocolate is enough to get those healthy polyphenols and all the good stuff that comes in dark chocolate." (One dessert to skip for sure? Cheesecake, which is high in saturated fats – that are proven to be bad for your heart due to artery-clogging properties.)
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a cardiologist at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women initiative, wants you to make time for a meditation date night — either by yourself or with a significant other.
"Saying something like a mantra in your headthat gives you a little boost of energy and self love is super helpful," she says, adding that the stress relief it will give you has lasting effects. "Meditation helps to dilate the arteries and decrease the fight or flight sympathetic nervous system. And by doing those two things, it actually decreases the incidence of heart disease that is so significant."
Put down the tobacco
If you use tobacco in any form – smoking, vaping, dip, etc. – Osborne wants you to curb the habit. "That's probably one of the most powerful gifts you can give to your Valentine," he says. "You're going to have better health, and you will live longer and be able to celebrate more Valentine's Days by quitting tobacco."
Get checked out
Osborne says Heart Month is the perfect time to schedule your annual physician check-ups, because "It's kind of slow in most offices because of the weather." He advises that you ask your doc to evaluate your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. "Many of these conditions can be completely asymptomatic and you really have to have those numbers checked," he says. And if your provider deems you an intermediate risk for heart disease, he recommends having a coronary artery calcium scoring performed to check for calcifications in the heart.
Toast with one glass of alcohol
Osborne says alcohol can cause weight gain and increases in heart rhythm issues like arterial fibrillation. He also highlights a new study, which found that drinking even one alcoholic drink a day may increase your risk of atrial fibrillation by anywhere between 10 to 16%. Yes, there are studies touting the benefits of red wine, but Osborne says that when it comes to heart health, these results are "probably modest" and that "there is definitely harm if you overdo it." Thus, he says to consume adult beverages in moderation and not to use the holiday an excuse to binge.
Watch a rom-com
"Laughing has been shown to actually dilate the arteries. If you really laugh with meaning, those arteries could stay dilated for as much as 24 hours," says Steinbaum. So this Valentine's Day, if you're going to watch a movie, she says to choose one that will make you smile and laugh as opposed to a sappy tearjerker. (Check out our list of the best movies to watch on Valentine's Day!)
Physical contact, says Steinbaum, has been shown to release feel-good hormones. "Having love in your life and being connected to people has all been shown to increase longevity, and to promote health and well being," she explains. So sneak in some extra snuggles with your partner. Cuddling with a pet counts too!
Sheltering in place solo during the pandemic? You can also release these feel good hormones with exercise. "This brings oxygen to your blood and boosts endorphins in your body," says Steinbaum. She notes that spending time outside, especially in the sunlight, can boost your mood and be uplifting as well.
Use Valentine's Day as an excuse to reach out to your network. "I feel like Valentine's Day this year is about all of us reconnecting with each other," says Steinbaum. She encourages you to FaceTime or call your friends and family to tell them how important they are to you. "There's been so much research out there about the positive effect of gratitude on health and well being," she says, citing a study that looked at people who had a heart attack and wrote thank you notes to their doctors and nurses. "Their outcomes were better as a result," she says, adding that the study's subjects reported feeling more gratitude and better moods, as well as kept up with taking their medications, maintained a healthier diet, and got more exercise than their less grateful counterparts.
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