By: Allison Tannis BSc MSc RHN

Go on and love your heart this February. It never stops; your heart beats every minute of every day. It’s a hard worker that deserves a little appreciation.  But, you can’t give your heart flowers, or buy it jewellery for Valentine’s Day.  So, instead why not try giving your heart a little love with these five heart healthy gifts.

1. Get Movin’

Exercise – it’s not just another way to encourage couch potatoes to sport a pair of running shoes; exercise really does prevent heart disease. There is scientific evidence linking regular physical activity with many measures of “heart” health. Research studies have shown that exercise can also reduce “bad” (LDL cholesterol) and total cholesterol levels, as well as elevate “good” (HDL cholesterol) cholesterol levels. Exercise also helps reduce blood pressure and encourages the body to shed excess weight.

All in all, being active is heart healthy! According to a review published in the journal Circulation in 2003, people who are more active or fit tend to develop less coronary heart disease than their sedentary counterparts. And, if heart disease develops in active or fit individuals, it occurs at a later age and tends to be less severe.

Don’t sweat it! Exercise doesn’t need to be painful or exhausting.  In fact, the more fun you have being active the better it probably is for your heart.  Fun exercise can help lower stress levels, another risk factor for heart disease.

2. Dial Down

Feeling a little ‘stressed-out’?  Mental stress can affect your heart. Even acute mental stress impairs the ability of blood vessels to function, and long-term stress causes blood vessels to weaken. 

Take some steps towards reducing stress in your life: breathe deeply, meditate, try yoga or tai chi. A review out of the University of Nevada noted that tai chi exercise is a safe exercise for those with or at risk of developing coronary heart disease, and it may even improve cholesterol levels, blood pressure and heart rate. How does it work? It’s thought that by decreasing your body’s stress response (sympathetic arousal) it improves blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar/insulin levels.

3. Tighten Up a Notch

Clothes a little tight? Is your belt only closing on a bigger notch?  Its long been accepted that obesity is linked to heart problems.  Just this past year, research out of the Netherlands confirmed that extra body weight contributes to high blood pressure, and an unhealthy heart.  Being overweight or obese causes inflammation in blood vessels, oxidative stress and elevated blood pressure.

Time to tighten up that belt buckle a notch or two.  Weight loss isn’t easy – it takes a lot of will power and a realistic plan that includes achievable exercise goals, proper sleep, lots of water, and a diet rich in natural, whole foods such as nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruit, whole grans, fish and beans. You can do it – every step gets you a little closer to a healthy heart.

4. Cut Cholesterol in New Ways

High cholesterol levels are considered a risk factor for heart disease. Eating fiber to help reduce cholesterol levels in your body is not news. In fact, between 1966 and 2012 there were over twenty quality randomized controlled studies looking at this connection.  In total, these studies have found that people who consume 48-80 grams of whole grains per day had a 21% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and lower cholesterol (LDL levels were 0.72 mmol lower on average).  How much fiber is on your fork?

There are other ways to reduce your undesirable cholesterol, including probiotics.  Study results show that taking probiotics can reduce cholesterol levels by as much as 33%. How do little friendly bacteria help your body lower its bad cholesterol?  Probiotics change cholesterol in your digestive tract into a form that isn’t easy for your body to reabsorb. Bacteria can assimilate, bind and ferment cholesterol – ultimately, resulting in a decrease in cholesterol levels in your body. Not bad for a little microbe, eh?

5. Nourish Your Heart

What would be the healthy equivalent of a box of chocolates for your heart?  Perhaps a box filled with olive oil, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and fish.  Scientists have been noting for decades how such ‘heart-healthy’ foods in certain traditional diets (including Mediterranean and Inuit diets) are linked with lower rates of heart disease. Today, there is substantial evidence indicating diets rich in such heart-healthy foods, together with regular physical activity could prevent the majority of heart disease. 

Five Major Risk Factors for Heart Disease:

1. Sedentary lifestyle
2. High blood pressure
3. Smoking
4. Obesity
5. Abnormal valves/blood lipids
Source: American Heart Association

Dalusung-Angosta A. The impact of Tai Chi exercise on coronary heart disease: a systematic review. J Am Acad Nurse Pract. 2011 Jul;23(7):376-81. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-7599.2011.00597.x. Epub 2011 Mar 31.

Dorresteiin JA, et al. Mechanisms linking obesity to hypertension. Obes Rev. 2012 Jan;13(1):17-26. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2011.00914.x. Epub 2011 Aug 10.

Frank, B. et al. Optimal Diets for Prevention of Coronary Heart Disease. JAMA. 2002;288(20):2569-2578. doi:10.1001/jama.288.20.2569.

Myers, J. Exercise and Cardiovasular Health, Circulation, 2003;107:e2-e5.

Qing Ye, E. et al. Greater Whole-Grain Intake Is Associated with Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Weight Gain. J. Nutr. July 1, 2012 vol. 142 no. 7 1304-1313

Schneider, RH et al. Stress Reduction in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: Randomized, Controlled Trial of Transcendental Meditation and Health Education in Blacks. Circulation Outcomes, November 13, 2012, doi: 10.1161/ CIRCOUTCOMES.112.967406.

Toda N, et al.  How mental stress affect endothelial function. Pflugers Arch. 2011 Dec;462(6):779-94. Epub 2011 Sep 23.