How to Live a Heart-healthy Lifestyle

Photo © Bradley Lewis

You’ve heard the statistic: “Heart disease and stroke take one in three Canadians before their time”, says the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada (HSFC). Here’s another: up to 80 per cent of cases of premature cardiovascular disease are preventable. Most of us know we can prevent, delay and treat cardiovascular disease with healthy lifestyle choices.

Achieving that healthy lifestyle is another story.

If you find it hard to fit regular exercise and healthy eating into your hectic schedule, you’re in good company. Time is the biggest obstacle standing between us and a healthier lifestyle, reports a 2011 survey of over 2000 adults conducted by the Environics Research Group on behalf of the HSFC.

For example, nearly half of respondents claimed their busy schedules don’t leave much room for regular exercise. Their workdays are too long, and other obligations like family get in the way. Nearly one third of workers blamed long commute times too. More than 40 per cent of respondents felt healthy meals take too long to prepare.

In addition, many respondents found they just couldn’t keep up those healthy habits. Four out of 10 respondents said in the past they’ve made an effort to get more exercise but weren’t able to sustain their routines. A third of all respondents experienced the same problem with eating a healthier diet.

“The challenge of finding time is a reality for most working Canadians, or those with competing obligations,” says Dr. Beth Abramson, cardiologist and spokesperson for the HSFC in a November 2011 press release.

“If we don’t make the effort to find time now to do the things that will give us the greatest health benefits, we’re going to run out of time altogether,” she notes.

Unfortunately, many people don’t make changes until they face a health crisis — but there are things we can do right now to sneak some healthy living into our routine.

Easy things you can do for your heart

Learn about your risk factors. Almost everyone has at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and 40 per cent of people have three or more risk factors. Take ten minutes to try the My Heart & Stroke Risk Assessment to see how you’re doing — it will tell you what you’re doing right and where you can improve.

If scary numbers motivate you, Consumer Reports’ online calculator can estimate your chance of having a heart attack within the next decade.

Schedule a check-up. Do you know your cholesterol levels or blood pressure? Are you at risk for type 2 diabetes? These risky issues don’t have obvious symptoms so they’re often caught through routine screening. Pick up the phone and schedule your appointment, even if it’s months in advance.

Swap screen time for active time. We may be short on time when it comes to exercising, but some studies say Canadians have ample time for computers, video games and TV. Freeing up half an hour a day to prepare healthy foods or go for a walk will go a long way to improving your health.

Another option: try multitasking while you watch TV. Do some light chores like dusting, folding laundry or watering plants.

Make it a date. Quality time can be active time too. For instance, go dancing on date night or go for a walk with friends. Plan active outings with the kids or grandkids, or try a family-friendly activity like swimming or hiking. If you have a canine companion, a daily walk is good for his or her health too — as is a healthy dose of play.

Try it for 10 (minutes, that is). Ideally we need 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each week — that’s half an hour, most days of the week. Longer work out sessions can be hard to schedule but three 10 minute sessions offers the same benefits. Try a brisk, 10 minute walk a couple of times a day or the HFSC’s 10-minute combo workout.

If you’re introducing more activity to your routine, experts recommend doing it gradually — especially when fatigue and joint pain are a challenge. The HSFC’s HeartWalk Workout offers a plan for building up to regular exercise.

Sneak in extra activity. The more we move, the better. There are many ways to sneak some exercise into our routines — like walking or biking to run errands or using your lunch break for a quick walk. Take the stairs whenever possible, and park your car at the back of the lot and walk. (See Sneak more exercise into your routine for more ideas.)

Butt out. Just in case you need another reason to give up smoking, experts say within one year of kicking the habit people can cut their risk of heart disease in half.  If you can’t go “cold turkey”, even cutting down can cut risk too.

Make one change to your diet. You don’t have to go all-in when it comes to diet changes, says the American Heart Association (AHA). Start with some small changes like switching to skim milk or using herbs and spices instead of salt. Try some healthy ingredient substitutions in your favourite recipes or try a new technique like grilling or braising. (See Give your recipes a healthy makeover for more ideas.)

Keep frozen vegetables on hand. They’re inexpensive and almost as convenient as canned (without the salt) when you need cooked veggies in a hurry. Frozen peas, beans and mixed vegetables can be added to soups, stews, chili and salads to sneak in an extra serving of vegetables. Edamame beans are also a quick source of protein when you don’t have time to cook meat.

Plan ahead for healthful meals. Experts say planning ahead can steer us away from prepared foods and restaurant fare which is loaded in sodium, sugar and salt. When you have time, make a meal plan for the week ahead and shop with a grocery list. If you know some nights are going to be especially busy, do some of the prep work in advance or opt for quick meal like an omelette or a stir fry. (For more information, see 6 keys to healthy eating and Top foods your heart will love for ideas.)

Select healthy snacks. Yes, meal planning should include snacks too — otherwise we might reach for a salty or sugary treat. For lasting satisfaction, experts recommend including small portions from different food groups — like whole grain crackers with peanut butter or fruit with low-fat dairy.

Snacks can also help fill in some of those dietary gaps — like getting enough servings of fruits and vegetables or omega-3 fatty acids.

Master some new recipes. Need inspiration in the kitchen? Recipes can take the guesswork out of food combinations, cooking times and portion sizes. Try our heart-healthy meal ideas, visit the HSFC’s Heart-healthy Recipes section or pick up a cookbook like Lighthearted at Home.

Make moderation the norm. You don’t have to sacrifice all the foods and drinks you love, but experts warn to avoid treating yourself too often or binging on fatty foods or alcohol. Treat yourself with a modest portion and take the time to savour the experience. For instance, enjoy your favourite speciality coffee when you can relax and sip it, and drink plain water at work.

And when it comes to alcohol, fewer drinks are better. If you do drink, limit it to one or two servings per day. That goes for weekends too — binge drinking is hard on the heart.

Learn to say no. If you already find it hard to make time for your health, chances are you don’t need any more commitments adding stress to your life. Check out our tips on learning to say no gracefully.

Make time to unwind. The chronic stress can increase inflammation in our bodies and impact our health too. That’s why it’s important to counteract that stress — whether you have an hour for your favourite hobby or a few minutes for breathing exercises. Exercise, meditation, spiritual pursuits and spending time with loved ones can also alleviate stress.

Stop stress in its tracks. What about high stress situations? The AHA recommends relying on your “emergency stress stoppers” like positive self talk, counting to 10, taking a walk or taking a breather. (See the AHA’s  Four Ways to Deal with Stress for more tips.)

Do you have to tackle all these tips at once? Of course not — even small changes can make a big difference. Try one or two of these tips to get you started. Before you know it, the changes will become a healthy habit.

For more information about heart health, visit:
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
The American Heart Association
Consumer Reports Heart Health Guide

Additional sources: The, WebMD