Ask a group of people what their favorite muscle is, and you might get a wide range of answers. However, there is only one correct answer here – and that is your heart.
Without your heart functioning correctly, all the other muscles on your body do not matter.
It would behoove all of us to make sure we take good care of our hearts. Through proper diet and exercise we can do that – and it’s not as complex as you might think!
Heart Healthy Diet
There are a few schools of science on what a heart healthy diet is, but there are few absolutes that we could all benefit from paying attention to. Now, before diving into specifics, one of the best things you can do for your heart is to take off extra weight. The heavier you are, the harder your heart has to work to pump blood throughout your body. Weight loss is a whole other article in itself, but in a nutshell it comes down to finding a diet that puts you into a calorie deficit thus triggering a metabolic response to begin breaking down fat tissue.
The specific nutrients to focus on come down to a few broad categories of foods to minimize and foods to maximize. The food groups to minimize all center around pro-inflammatory foods. These include processed foods – added sugars, highly processed seed oils (peanut, soy, corn, vegetable, etc.) and especially chemically engineered trans fats. Added sugars – think white sugar added to make everything sweeter, is highly glycemic (spikes blood sugar) and causes inflammatory responses in tissues. We all should know that we should minimize these foods – yet they continue to sell at record numbers! Let’s not forget, heart disease is still the number one cause of death in the United States.
The inflammatory seed oils fall into a category of fats known as Omega-6 fats. Alone, these are not terrible, but it is more so the ratio of Omega-3’s to Omega-6’s in the average American diet. We could all use more Omega-3’s and less Omega-6’s, more on that in a second.
The best rule of thumb is to avoid processed, manufactured foods as much as possible.
So what SHOULD we eat?
Focus on foods that are most in their natural state. An apple is an apple. Chicken is chicken. Berries are berries. Simple. Anti-inflammatory foods such as cruciferous vegetables – broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc. are all fantastic. Fresh fruits, especially berries, are high in anti-oxidants and help fight inflammation.
Heart healthy fats come in the form of Omega-3’s and monounsaturated fats – which are found in fatty fish like salmon, walnuts, avocados and olive oil – are all foods that should be enjoyed more often. Lastly, lean sources of protein, with moderate levels of fats are heart healthy, but should still be less processed. There is a massive difference between pork tenderloin and pork sausages or brats (sorry fellow Wisconsinites).
What About Heart-Healthy Exercise?
Cardiovascular exercise – cardio – is called just this for its heart health benefits. Now, this doesn’t have to mean slogging away on a treadmill, but more so comes down to getting your heart working harder for 30-45 minutes via a method that you enjoy.
I personally don’t enjoy running – so I will choose to bike, or complete a circuit with sled pushes, medicine ball slams, and other “fun” exercises for my cardio work. If running is your jam, get after it!
How Much Exercise Should I Do? Which Exercises Should I Do?
General exercise recommendations are 150 minutes per week of moderate to intense exercise per week. This is a good start – but we can get even more specific. When it comes to training, or heart rate zones – zone 2 training is ideal. Zone 2 is roughly 180 minus your age. So a 50 year old, would want to be around 130 beat per minute for 30 or so minutes, 5 times per week.
Again, this can be done through multiple training means and doesn’t have to be seen as “traditional cardio” if you don’t enjoy that.
You also need to be aware of what your body can handle. If you have a good amount of weight to lose, running on concrete may not be the best option as this puts extreme stress on your joints – 3-4x your bodyweight for every stride! Biking, water fitness, or higher intensity hiking are great, joint friendly options.
Lastly, we always want to be prepared and protected against set backs from training. Make sure you are properly outfitted for any support you need for your joints – feet, ankles, and knees can be great areas to add some extra compression to. If you choose to run, make sure you have proper-fitting shoes and that they aren’t worn out!
Follow these simple steps, and your heart, your health and your future self will definitely thank you!