Taking Care of Your Sweet Heart

February is Heart Month, and while we often think of sweethearts and romantic love, February is a good time to pay attention to the real heart – the one that beats inside and keeps us alive each day. While January may be the month for dieting, February is the perfect month to focus on a long-term healthy lifestyle and not just quick fixes.

There’s good reason to pay attention to heart health, as experts say many Americans live with one or more risk factors for heart disease.

One in three American adults has high blood pressure, or hypertension, and nearly 12 percent have high levels of bad cholesterol. Nearly one-third of American adults are not physically active, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), and one in 10 has Type 2 Diabetes.

Short-term diets are almost the norm in America. Yet more and research has shown that diets that require a person to restrict calories and limit food groups for a short time do not work in the long run.

Self-care that includes healthful eating and exercise activities is the answer suggested by advocacy and health educational groups, such as the AHA. This means changing behavioral patterns over the long haul, avoiding unhealthy habits such as drinking sugary beverages or eating sweets altogether, rather than for a few weeks or months.”

The AHA and cardiologists recommend following a year-round, life-long, heart-healthy diet. In addition, the AHA, doctors and fitness experts recommend regular exercise to keep our hearts in good shape. The AHA recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 51 percent of adults meet the guidelines for aerobic activity each week. And, far fewer, 21 percent, meet federal guidelines for aerobic and strength-training exercise.



So how do you get on the right track? Your first move might not be exercise itself, but an adjustment in your thinking, according to a Decatur fitness expert. People who have not exercised in a while often have anxiety and fear about starting an exercise program.

“Every single day, I work with someone who comes in anxious and leaves happy,” said Hannah Beth Millman, the studio manager for [solidcore] in Decatur on Howard Avenue. “It’s that little voice inside our head that says we can’t do something, or that it will be too hard.”

All activity levels can find a fitness routine at [solidcore], including those geared to a beginner, to someone who has been injured and is returning to exercise, and to the dedicated who maintain a regular program, according to Millman.

Take the Plunge

Swimming tops many doctors’ recommendations for healthy exercise, especially for the aging and those with joint issues, but not everyone has access to a pool year-round. Options in the Decatur area include the YMCA on Clairmont and nearby East Lake, as does the DeKalb Wellness Center. The City of Decatur also has several parks and recreation centers with outdoor pools that open Memorial Day weekend. These pools usually offer adult swim every hour.

The Future is Active

While the burden of heart disease falls most heavily on adults, researchers have found that habits established in childhood can have lasting effects on a person’s health. Therefore, as you begin to pay attention to your heart this month, it’s also important to consider any influence you may have on younger generations.

“Childhood obesity is an enormous problem,” explained Decatur Pediatric Cardiologist Heather Phelps. And, obesity sets children up for high blood pressure and Type 2 Diabetes, both of which contribute to heart disease.

“Kids need about an hour of exercise a day,” Phelps said. That can come from playing active games or being on the playground. Encouraging activity in children starts early. And it’s not just about making sure they exercise — it’s what they see their parents do, too.

“They see what we do, and they do it. The more active we are as parents, the more active they will be,” she said.

The Way to the Heart Through the Stomach

Good heart health is also dependent on food choices, and not just the number of calories you take in. A heart-healthy diet is actually very simple. The AHA suggests eating fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fiber-rich whole grains. Vegetarians and vegans have a head start.

It also means avoiding sugary drinks of all kinds — even those hidden in favorites like the afternoon latte.

Many of the sugar habits start in childhood, experts said, but the habits can be undone.

“Children eat way too much sugar,” said Phelps. “The first thing we normally talk about is eliminating sugary drinks.”

And that’s not just sodas; most fruit juices, fruit drinks and sports drinks are laden with sugars.

“Unless you’re sweating, you don’t need that (a sports drink),” said Phelps.


Switching from bad habits to better ones can take time, Phelps said. Beyond removing sugary drinks for starters, she suggests that people find one thing they can give up to get the process going. Also, she advises to make habit-changing a family affair.

“Everyone should do it,” said Phelps. “A parent can say ‘We’re all going to get healthy, we’re all going to eat better.’”

That can go for older people living in a household, too.

Besides knocking sugar out of the diet, the AHA also recommends avoiding trans fats, or the kinds of fats often found in processed sweets, and choosing foods low in saturated fat and sodium. The group also recommends eating fish (preferably oily fish) at least twice per week. It also suggests eating nuts, legumes and seeds. For those who do eat meat, choose the leanest cuts available, suggests the AHA.

And, so far as sweets for the sweet at Valentine’s Day, Phelps said it’s okay to indulge in a treat. But she suggests a novel approach: Do not eat a candy heart or other sweet straight from the bag. Instead, take out one sweet treat, place it on a plate or tray, sit down and enjoy it.

Phelps also stressed that everyone is capable of making healthy lifestyle changes. While it may seem daunting at the beginning, remember that millions of people have succeeded in living a healthy lifestyle.

“Remember the big picture. You can make these changes. You can do it. We can do it,” said Phelps.


Looking for healthier ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day instead of with candy? The American Heart Association offers these tips:

• Consider a more permanent gift, such as a poem. You can find one by an author that resonates for you — or write one yourself! (And don’t forget Decatur’s great gift shops!)
• Plan a fun activity — such as exercising together, or walking around the Decatur Square
• Make a meal with a new heart-healthy recipe
• Choose a fruit basket instead of a box of candy as a gift
• For kids, choose raisins, wholegrain pretzels, or switch it up with gifts to inspire creativity
• Order a heart healthy meal of fish or legumes, with a hearthealthy salad or veggies


by Lynne Anderson