With National Heart Month soon approaching, diet and exercise remain some of the best ways to fight against heart disease. But as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report a national rise in both obesity
and physical inactivity
, heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death
, even amongst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether you are working from home or choosing the remote control over snow boots, Dr. TaLawnda Bragg, a hospitalist at Spectrum Health, says a sedentary lifestyle often contributes to less than ideal nutritional choices.
“If we’re cooped up at home, we’re more likely to be less active and eat out of boredom,” Bragg says. “A lot of people have changed their diets throughout this pandemic — not for the better, but for worse.”
Dr. Talawnda Bragg
Though, mindless snacking is not the only culprit. Elizabeth Suvedi, manager of culinary medicine at Spectrum Health, adds the pandemic’s link to stress eating also poses a threat to your heart health.
“When times are tough and people are struggling in work or their personal lives, sometimes there can be that feeling of ‘Oh, I want comfort food. I need comfort food,’” Suvedi says. “Yes, it may give you a couple minutes of satisfaction, but long term, it can be very damaging to your health. Many people don’t realize what these foods are doing to their organs.”
Because these sedentary lifestyle choices have been exacerbated by the pandemic, Bragg continues to see an increase in hospitalizations for strokes, heart attacks, congestive heart failure, and high blood pressure or hypertensive emergencies. “When we think about the sick people in the hospital, we tend to think about those who are sick from COVID. But there are also folks who are sick related to these chronic illnesses getting out of control and turning into acute emergencies,” Bragg says.
But it’s never too late. No matter where you may be starting from, you can always begin to make positive changes to your lifestyle. “Even those who may have already gotten to the point where they’re seeing those heart disease conditions set in, they can still make changes and start to reverse some of their disease by starting to change what they're eating,” Suvedi says.
That doesn’t mean you need to eat a salad for the rest of your life either. According to Suvedi, you can have “guiltless comfort food” by changing what comfort food means to you. “Healthy eating can be absolutely delicious, satisfying and filling. You don’t need to sacrifice flavor and taste when eating well,” Suvedi says. Perhaps, if you are in the mood for spaghetti, try making a recipe with vegetables and lentils instead of meat.
Small, incremental changes are key, according to Bragg. Think of it as a long game. Tackling one bad habit and replacing it with a healthier one can make a big difference. “Any changes you attempt should be realistic and sustainable,” Bragg says. While sometimes people may assume getting healthy means going on a strict diet and working out seven days a week, Bragg explains those thoughts are only setting you up for failure.
Instead, Bragg recommends taking one step at a time. “You don’t have to do all of the changes in the beginning,” Bragg says. “One day you might be starting with 10 minutes on a stationary bike, but then as you build on each success, day after day, you may be signing up for a 10k before you know it. It’s the small steps.”
Another way to make healthy choices for the long haul is to prioritize the golden years of your life. Everyone loves to talk about saving money for your retirement, but Suvedi poses the question, “When you can actually retire, how will the quality of your life be?” She encourages people to prioritize their future health and well-being starting now. “You need to save your health for the future and start taking those investments in yourself. Every time you eat, be conscious of what you’re putting in your body and how it can impact you in the long run,” Suvedi says.
While some may claim healthy food is expensive, Suvedi argues sticking to a budget is not only possible, but it is easier than one might think, especially if you eat a lot of plant foods. It is all about being mindful and making a commitment to your long-term health. “That way, when you reach retirement age, you’ll still feel great and be able to move around,” Suvedi says. “You’ll be adding years to your life, and you won’t have to fill your days at the hospital, seeing doctors or spending a bunch of money on medication because that all adds up too.”
Managing your heart health also means caring for your mental health. As the pandemic sees an uptick in mental health concerns
, Bragg explains caring for your emotional well-being is vital. “Our bodies are dynamic and everything is connected. It all moves and works together. It would be impossible to have complete and total health without focusing on your mental health, and that’s been tough during the pandemic. When we think about all the stress it brings, that stress can increase cortisol levels, which can increase blood sugars, raise blood pressure, and anxiety,” Bragg says.
If we do not pay attention to our emotional needs, Bragg explains the symptoms may manifest in our bodies in the form of headaches, sleep disturbances and even neurological issues, such as tingling or numbness. To help combat these symptoms, try meditation and therapy. “Right now, everybody’s doing virtual health,” Bragg says. “It can be as quick as getting online and speaking with a provider for 30 minutes to an hour. It helps to have an objective person to process the things happening in your everyday life.”
As a lifestyle medicine team member, Suvedi adds feeling as though you are a part of a community may also aid one’s mental health. “Having that sense of belonging and togetherness can be very helpful to just recognize you’re not alone in what you're going through and people are here to support you,” she says. Whether it is a friend or a family member, Suvedi advises it is always nice to be a listening ear for one another.
It all comes full circle too. By caring for your physical health, you may also see improvements in your mental health. “Give yourself that time and attention to be kind to yourself,” Bragg says. “Enjoy a healthy meal, go for a walk or take five minutes in the morning to lift some dumbbells. It’s all cumulative and really goes a long way in making you feel better because of all the great hormonal releases you get from increased activity.”
This type of “exercise snacking,” in which you work out for little snippets throughout your day, is just one example of how little changes can add up. It can also be applied to eating habits. “Start with one thing, work on it for a few weeks and surround yourself in a community of people who are going to support you,” Suvedi says. “Maybe it’s drinking water instead of sugary beverages. See if you can do that for a month, and then, after you’ve embraced that success, focus on what will be your next change.”
By committing to these healthier lifestyle choices, Suvedi can attest to the benefits people experience within a matter of weeks. “Your body and your mind will thank you,” she says. “Whether our patients are getting off some of their medications or I hear that their arthritis pain is gone, it’s amazing to see their health improvements. I hope it gives them a much more fulfilled and healthy life to live where they can now focus on achieving all the other things they’re hoping and dreaming.”
In addition to learning more about Spectrum Health’s Heart and Vascular Care
and Lifestyle Medicine Specialty Practice
, you can begin investing in your health by watching cooking demonstrations
, reviewing recipes
, enrolling in a culinary class
, or signing up for a lifestyle medicine newsletter
This article is presented in partnership with Spectrum Health.