Seeing that February is Heart Health Month, I thought this opportunity to discuss cardiovascular health would be very appropriate. Many of us know that a healthy heart is one of the most important aspects of our well-being. However, even though we are aware of this fact, heart disease is still the number one cause of death in our country. In understanding that fact, there are many things that we as individuals can do to lower our risk of heart disease.
Today We Will Discuss:
- How the Heart Functions
- The Impact of Nutrition on your Heart Health
- How Exercise Benefits the Heart
How the Heart Functions
The heart is the primary organ of our circulatory system. The heart is about the size of our fist and is composed primarily of muscle and serves as a pump to circulate blood. As a pump, it performs two jobs simultaneously it pumps blood to our lungs to pick up oxygen and releases carbon dioxide (pulmonary circulation), which is brought back to the heart, and then it takes the oxygenated blood and pumps it out to the rest of our body (systemic circulation). This is the role of our heart in its most simplistic form. Basically, it is the organ responsible for getting fuel (oxygen, nutrients) to the rest of our body, while at the same time removing waste (carbon dioxide, etc.) from our body to the lungs where it can be disposed through exhaling (breathing out).
There are a couple of measurements to be aware of when it comes to heart health, heartrate and blood pressure. Our heartrate, also known as pulse, equals the number of times our heart beats per minute. A normal heart rate falls between 60 and 100 beats per minute; many factors can affect our heart rate including exertion, exercise, hydration, oxygen levels, stimulants (caffeine, drugs, etc.), stress/anxiety, rest, etc. Blood pressure is a measure of force being exerted on the walls of blood vessels, known as arteries, as blood is pumped out of the heart. Normal blood pressure is considered to be 120/80. The top number of our blood pressure is known as our systolic pressure and the bottom number is known as our diastolic pressure. Our systolic pressure measures the force the heart must pump against to get the blood to flow around the body. Our diastolic pressure measures the pressure in the arteries as the heart relaxes. Both heartrate and blood pressure our taken as vital signs at almost every doctor visit to provide a quick screen of your current heart and cardiovascular health. Blood pressure, just like heartrate, can be affected by several lifestyle factors including diet, exercise, medications, stimulants (caffeine, drugs, etc.), stress/anxiety, rest, etc.
Why your Heart Needs Fat
Let’s know talk about how through some simple (not necessarily easy) ways we can improve our overall heart health. The two biggest ways to have an impact on our heart health, Yes you guessed it, Nutrition and Exercise. Nutrition is how we feed our body and it is vital to good heart health. Believe it or not, fat and fatty acids is the primary (70%) fuel source for our heart, fat truly is not the bad guy! Whereas, carbohydrates are the secondary (30%) fuel source. In addition, in times of fasting and/or starvation the heart can also use protein for fuel, though this is not preferred. The fact that the heart utilizes fat and fatty acids as the preferred fuel source makes a lot of sense as we have more fat readily available to be used for energy over carbohydrates. If we recall from our Macronutrient blog on carbohydrates, we only store approximately 400g of glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates) in our liver and muscle tissue, which helps us to make rapid energy when needed. Since our heart must endure 60-100 beats per minute or 1,440 beats per hour at a minimum for the duration of our life, it is a good thing that it does not depend upon glycogen for energy, as we would run out of this fuel source very rapidly at that pace after which our heart would no longer run and you get the picture!
Given the fact that the heart utilizes fat for energy, there is still limits on the amount of fat we should consume to help maintain a healthy weight, which is obviously very important to heart health. The more weight that we carry, the harder our heart must work to feed our body, which places excess demand and strain on our heart. The preferred source of dietary fat for heart health is Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s help to improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels, while helping to reduce inflammation which are all important to maintaining vascular and heart health. As Americans, we can often become deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids as a result of not consuming enough of the foods that contain good amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids and overconsuming foods high in omega-6 fatty acids, which have the opposite effects negatively affecting heart health. In comparison to Omega-3s, Omega-6 fatty acids increase inflammation and atherosclerosis (clogging and hardening of blood vessels), which increases our risk to heart disease. Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids, as the must be provided through food, a healthy ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids has been found to be between 1:1 and 4:1, however research shows that typically the American diet has a ratio of 15:1 to 17:1, which is a significant risk factor for heart disease.
Carbohydrates & Heart Health
As for carbohydrates and heart health, we want to focus on whole, minimally processed forms of carbohydrates in moderation including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. These types of carbohydrates are higher in dietary fiber which has cardioprotective effects including lowering cholesterol and triglyceride levels and may also help to reduce blood pressure. In contrast, foods that contain high amounts of simple or free sugar, which tend to be the more processed forms of carbohydrates including sugary drinks (soda, fruit juice), syrups, candy, baked goods, chips, etc. have been shown to increase our risk of heart disease. As a result, these foods should be limited and not eaten in abundance. The last food type that needs to be discussed relative to heart health is fried foods, which significantly increase our risk of heart disease and these foods are best limited as well. As stated above, maintaining a healthy weight through good nutritional habits is very important to heart health, the more weight we carry the harder our heart must work to supply blood and nutrients to our body.
Exercise Benefits the Heart
The second factor that can affect our heart health is exercise. The heart is a muscle and as such exercise can be a very effective way of building endurance, strength, and capacity of our heart. When we think of cardiovascular activities we often think of running, cycling, and swimming which are all great and probably the best forms of cardiovascular exercise there are other activities that can help us to improve cardiovascular health including walking, dancing, boxing, hiking, organized sports, etc. The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week. A heart rate monitor can be very beneficial during cardiovascular exercise to monitor the load to your heart during these activities as well as being able to monitor how well your heart recovers following these activities and to measure improvements in your cardiovascular health.
Many of us understand that cardiovascular exercise is important to our heart health. However, did you know that strength training is also very important to the health of our hearts? Strength training is used to help us improve our lean tissue (muscle) mass. Muscle has better circulation than fat (adipose) tissue. Therefore, one of the effects of strength training and improving our percentage of lean mass compared to fat mass is that muscle is an easier tissue for the heart to feed through its improved circulation meaning the heart does not have to work as hard in feeding lean tissue. In addition, the more lean mass that we have the greater the capacity of our muscles. Increased capacity of our muscles improves our use of oxygen and other nutrients by the muscle. As a result, the heart again does not have to work as hard as we can create more strength and power with less relative oxygen. Think of this like improved gas mileage in a car, the muscle can work for longer periods of time with the same relative oxygen. The American Heart Association recommends adding moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity (such as resistance or weights) at least 2 days per week.
In addition to the recommended guidelines for cardiovascular and strength training, the American Heart Association also recommends:
- Spending less time sitting. Even light-intensity activity can offset some of the risks of being sedentary.
- Gaining even more benefits by being active at least 300 minutes (5 hours) per week.
- Increasing amount and intensity of exercise gradually over time.
As we all know heart health is extremely important to our well-being. The goal here is to choose realistic habits from the information provided to get yourself and your heart on the right track. If you are interested in working towards a healthier heart, but do not know where or how to start, we are here for you and happy to assist you on creating realistic and repeatable habits on your way to a healthier heart! Take the opportunity to come talk to us and let us show you how by signing up for our No-Stress Fitness Strategy Session or our First Step Nutritional Coaching Strategy Session. There truly is no-obligation to you other than 30 minutes of time that may help you to change your life and provide you far more than 30 minutes you are giving up. We hope to see you soon!
Till next time…