February is Heart Month, and we are filled with love at the thought of strong, healthy hearts. While the standard recommendation for preventing heart disease is getting in heart-healthy exercise is at least 45 minutes per day, this can be a challenge for those dealing with chronic pain. Although it may be difficult, keeping your heart strong while managing chronic pain is possible, and it is one of the best things you can do for overall health and longevity. Here’s how.
What is heart disease?
Heart disease can be a silent condition with few warning signs. It most commonly presents as:
- Coronary artery disease
- High blood pressure
- Cardiac arrest
- Congestive heart failure
- Peripheral artery disease
High blood pressure, in particular, is a key risk factor for stroke and heart attack. It often has very few obvious symptoms. Over 67 million people in the U.S. have high blood pressure. This makes them four times as likely to die of heart disease. This risk rises depending on race and geography. Forty percent of African American men have high blood pressure, and 50% of the cases are uncontrolled. People living in southern and Midwestern states are more likely to develop heart disease than those who live in other areas of the U.S.
Risk factors for high blood pressure
High blood pressure is a risk factor for multiple conditions.
Several different conditions have been linked to it. The most well-known conditions are heart disease and stroke. Both of these are influenced by a variety of risk factors, some of which are out of your control, such as family history, gender, or ethnicity. However, even if you can’t change your genetics, you can still seriously lower your risk for heart disease and stroke.
In fact, several of the other risk factors for heart disease and stroke go hand-in-hand with high blood pressure. For example, those with high blood pressure are more likely to also have high cholesterol, diabetes, or weight issues, all of which increase the risk for heart disease and stroke. The same dietary and lifestyle changes that can reduce high blood pressure can also positively affect cholesterol levels and blood sugar control, as well as support weight loss or weight maintenance.
Studies have also shown that those with atrial fibrillation are at a much higher risk for stroke if they have uncontrolled high blood pressure. This means that even people who have had medical conditions in the past can benefit significantly from getting their blood pressure under control. Recent research has also found that chronic high blood pressure increases the risk of glaucoma, the second leading cause of blindness worldwide. Poor blood pressure control can even lead to worse memory in old age.
Tips for preventing heart disease
The first step to getting heart healthy while living with chronic pain is to talk to your doctor. She may be able to direct you to programs of support or particular classes that are geared towards chronic pain patients.
1. Take your blood pressure regularly
Testing for high blood pressure is simple, but vital, so get it checked during American Heart Month. It is helpful to know where you start so that you can track your progress.
High blood pressure typically exhibits no symptoms, which is why it’s sometimes called the “silent killer.” This is why it’s so important to get it checked on a regular basis. Otherwise, you might be suffering from this condition and be at an increased risk for multiple serious health conditions without knowing it.
A blood pressure cuff is all that’s needed to check for high blood pressure. This can be done in just a couple minutes in a physician’s office. Some pharmacies and stores also provide testing stations or you can have it done before donating blood. You can even buy a blood pressure cuff yourself and test it at home, although it’s always a good idea to have your physician check it a couple times a year.
Actually, one study found that people who visit their physicians at least twice a year are 3.2 times more likely to have good blood pressure control, as compared to those who visit their physician once or less throughout the year.
2. If you smoke, quit
There are few things that you can do that affect your health positively so quickly and dramatically within the first few minutes of your last cigarette. Quitting smoking immediately improves lung function and can contribute to lower blood pressure. Get the support you need to quit for good.
3. Control your salt intake
High levels of sodium are directly correlated to high blood pressure. Take steps to reduce your sodium intake to help control high blood pressure for a healthy heart. Get very familiar with reading nutritional information to reduce sodium levels, and explore other ingredients and seasonings for less sodium with tons of delicious flavor!
4. Look at your overall nutrition
Nutrition can be key to keeping your heart healthy while coping with chronic pain, but too often it falls by the wayside. Many people turn to comfort foods when their pain levels rise, many of which are actually the opposite of comforting. Comfort foods tend to have high levels of fat, salt, and sugar, all of which increase inflammation in the body and perpetuate a vicious cycle of pain.
Break that cycle with naturally anti-inflammatory foods that support heart health and help control inflammation. You may find that some simple swaps give you the energy and sustenance you need to get up and get moving. Ask your physician or a nutritionist what your goals should, but here are some basic daily guidelines:
- Try to get around 1,500 mg of sodium, but definitely no more than 2,400 mg
- Avoid foods that have a lot of cholesterol, trans fats, or added sugars and sweeteners
- Try to limit saturated fats to about 13 g per day for a 2,000 calorie diet
- Replace unhealthy snacks and foods with fruits, veggies, and whole grains
Making these changes means becoming familiar with the nutritional information on foods and drinks, including the recommended serving size. Multiple servings of a lower sodium snack can still add up to a lot of sodium. When you’re eating out, do a quick web search for the restaurant’s nutritional information before leaving the house. Keep in mind that many restaurants add salt while cooking, but most will gladly forgo the extra salt if asked.
When you’re buying groceries, look for items labeled as “heart healthy” or marked with the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check. Organic pre-prepared foods are often lower in sodium, fats, and sugar too, so compare different brands. You can also look for things like lower-sodium broth or salt-free seasonings when you’re cooking.
Also, consider switching out the soda for water or herbal tea. If this doesn’t do the trick, make sure you check the label before you down a bottled soft drink. Sports drinks, especially, often have sodium to replace what’s lost while sweating. If you’re not working up a sweat before downing a sports drink, you’re just adding unnecessary sodium to your diet.
Once you put these three steps into place, it’s time to exercise.
Many people with chronic pain will avoid exercise, fearing that it will make the pain worse or believing that the pain of exercise is not worth the benefit. It is understandable that exercise first thing in the morning may not be an option for creaking, aching joints and muscles, but there are ways to ease into exercise for a healthy heart.
There is no reason to push your body past the point of exhaustion when you first start to exercise. In fact, this can cause an excessive amount of rebound pain that may cause you to stop exercising altogether. Gentle stretching to warm the body first may be all you are capable of as you begin, and this is fine. While the goal is a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise that gets your heart pumping, there may be days when that amount just isn’t possible. Move a little every day, even if it is not cardiovascular, and you’ll see improvements.
Exercise lowers blood pressure and improves mood, so start where you are for best results.
Choose exercises wisely
It you have chronic pain due to osteoarthritis in your knees and hips, you may not be able to bear running like you used to. This does not mean you cannot still run. Choose instead to run in a pool. Here, the water both supports and resists for a double whammy of a cardiovascular workout. If the pool is not an option, look into hiking or race-walking.
Yoga is another way to begin a heart-healthy fitness journey that honors and supports your body when it is feeling most painful. Most yoga poses can be modified to accommodate differing levels of pain from day-to-day (or even within the practice), and the many styles mean that you can still break a sweat. If you are an experienced yogi, gentle vinyasa classes can keep the body moving slowly, building strength without fast-paced transitions. On days when the pain makes pressure on the joints unbearable, chair yoga is a viable option.
Robert Bonow, M.D., a professor of cardiology at Northwestern University Medical School, supports choosing an exercise that you will actually stick with, saying:
“Find the most comfortable way of exercise for you. You can even do exercises while laying on your back. Try to find something that works for you. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ here.”
Then, move without a plan. Incorporating additional movement into your day can be simple. Park far away from store entrances, for example, or take the stairs instead of the elevator. Often adding exercise for a strong heart is a matter of changing your patterns to increase movement throughout the day. Movement helps aching joints and muscles to remain mobile and can help decrease pain in the long run.
6. Follow doctor’s orders for high blood pressure treatments
If you’re diagnosed with high blood pressure, follow your doctor’s orders to treat it.
Because high blood pressure doesn’t noticeably affect day to day life, it can be easy to brush off a doctor’s advice for treatment. However, it’s important to always take whatever medications your physician prescribes. Additionally, it’s important to follow up with your physician regularly. Your blood pressure can change over time, necessitating a change in dosage for your medication.
Research has shown that both undertreating and overtreating high blood pressure can cause serious health problems, like kidney failure. Your physician knows the best target range for you. Getting regular check-ups will allow him or her to help you adjust your medications and lifestyle so you stay at your healthiest.
With enough dedication to a better diet, more exercise, and a healthier lifestyle, it can be possible to control your blood pressure. Done well enough, no medication is necessary. Remember that your physician always knows the best target range for you, so get checked out regularly.
How else do you prevent heart disease and ensure a healthy ticker during American Heart Month?