Seven Strategies to Boost Heart Health

February is winding down. Although Punxsutawney Phil may have seen his shadow, it sure feels like spring is right around the corner, at least in Massachusetts. But, since February is still here, and February is heart month, let’s focus this week on keeping heart health front and center.

Understandably, thinking about heart health sometimes takes a back burner to trying to control diabetes 24/7. Who has time to do it all? The good news is that the steps you take to manage your diabetes can simultaneously help keep your heart and blood vessels in top shape. Let’s take a closer look.

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Seven steps to heart health
1. Eat well. By eating well, I mean eating healthfully (not necessarily more!). What constitutes a healthy eating plan? Despite all of the conflicting messages out there about a healthy diet for diabetes and heart health, there’s good evidence that an eating plan based on plenty of vegetables and fresh fruit, fish, poultry and lean meat, whole grains, and healthy fats, such as olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocado lowers the risk of heart disease.

How it helps: This way of eating also has been linked with a reduced incidence of Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and some types of cancer. And, I’ll point out that a Mediterranean eating plan has been shown to lower blood sugar and A1C levels, as well. One of the best aspects of this eating plan is that it’s realistic and doable: it can be tailored to your preferences and lifestyle, and there are no food groups that you have to avoid. Talk with a dietitian if you’re interested in how this approach can work for you.

2. Fit that activity in. I hear a lot of people say that trying to fit activity into their daily routine is a struggle. It’s not that they don’t know that exercise is good for them; rather, it’s figuring out what to do and when to do it. The goal with activity is to aim for at least 150 minutes a week. What you do and how you achieve it is pretty much up to you. For example, you could be active for 30 minutes, five days a week. Don’t have 30 minutes? Break it up! Do 10 minutes at a time, but do it three times a day. You don’t have to sweat it out in a gym, unless you choose to do so. You can climb stairs, watch a YouTube video, pull out a resistance band, or walk around the mall. Make time in your schedule to fit even 10 minutes in, each day, and then gradually increase the time.

How it helps: Physical activity strengthens your heart, lowers your blood pressure and cholesterol, and yes, lowers your blood sugars, too. Plus, regular activity lowers stress, boosts your mood, and even can improve the quality of your sleep. Whoever said exercise is the best medicine was definitely on to something!

3. Take your medication. Taking medication is something that many people are loathe to do. They may feel like they should be able to rely on lifestyle measures instead of pills or insulin to do the job. While you might be able to lower some of your medications or perhaps even come off them, the reality is that, for many people, without medication, health problems and quality of life could be worse. There are risks and benefits to taking any type of medication, so talk with your provider about what you might need and the best options for you.

How they help: Medications help lower cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugars, and A1C. They’re not meant to be a substitute for healthy eating, physical activity, weight control, and other factors; rather, they work as a team to help you get to your best possible health.

4. Monitor your levels. Monitoring is another key part of managing a chronic condition, as well as helping to prevent worsening of conditions and new health issues. Chances are, you’re monitoring your blood sugars using a meter. Maybe you even use a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). Some people with diabetes monitor for ketones. You might even monitor your blood pressure at home.

How it helps Just as you check the gas gauge in your car or keep tabs on your checking account, it pays to keep tabs on your health. The reason for monitoring isn’t to take up precious time in your day; instead, monitoring blood pressure and blood sugar, for example, are ways to let you and your health-care team know how things are going. And if they’re not going in the right direction, it’s time to make some changes.

5. Know your numbers. What was your most recent A1C level? What was your blood pressure at your last doctor’s visit? What’s your latest LDL cholesterol level? When did you have your last dilated eye exam? Hopefully you’re able to rattle off those answers, or at least consult a chart or a record. If not, how can you know how your heart health or diabetes is going?

How it helps: Knowing the results of and goals for all of your “numbers,” such as lab results and other tests, is the best way for you to stay on top of your health. Ask questions at your doctor visits. When the nurse or medical assistant checks your blood pressure, ask for the result. You have the right to know, and most importantly, you SHOULD know what these numbers are. If they’re not within target, then you and your provider or diabetes educator can decide on next steps.

6. Make a plan to quit. Smoking is a habit that can be very hard to break. But it causes one of every three deaths due to heart disease. It’s also a major cause of lung cancer. Smoking can even raise blood sugar levels.

How it helps: Ask your doctor to discuss options for quitting smoking, or visit www.smokefree.gov for tips on quitting. Once you stop smoking, you’ll see and feel the benefits right away! Your blood pressure and heart rate drop after just 20 minutes. And you’ll slash your excess risk of heart disease by 50% after just one year.

7. Learn healthy coping. We all have stress in our lives, and it’s probably not going away anytime soon. But you can learn how to better manage it, and hopefully even reduce it.

How it helps: It may seem New-Age-y, but destressing with yoga, meditation, deep breathing, or even just making time for yourself doing something you enjoy (maybe a nap?) really do help. They can clear your mind, lower your blood pressure and heart rate, and lower your risk for heart-related problems, too. What can you try today to help you lower your stress?

Paige Kuehmeier is Development Coordinator for the Palmetto Chapter of JDRF and mom of a Type 1 child. Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to hear from her.