Monday Medical: Heart Health To-Do’s |

Monday Medical: Heart Health To-Do’s

Susan Cunningham/For Steamboat Today

Monday Medical

Editor's note: This article is the second in a three-part series about heart health for American Heart Month.

When it comes to keeping your heart healthy, there are a few basics that can help.

Following, Alexa Pighini, a physician assistant with YampaCare Cardiology, reviews a key to-do list for a healthy heart.

• Eat with your heart in mind: A healthy diet supports a healthy heart. That means choosing whole grains, vegetables and fruits, lower sodium foods whenever possible and healthy fats, such as olive oil.

"You don't necessarily have to go on a specific diet; it should be more of a lifestyle change," Pighini said. "Start with watching caloric intake and portion control. Then, watch what you eat, and try to stay away from saturated fats and junk food."

Maintaining a healthy weight is key: The more you weigh, the harder your heart has to work. Plus, fat can end up getting stored in blood vessels, hampering the flow of blood and making the heart's job tougher.

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If a doctor recommends losing weight, that doesn't necessarily mean a patient has to lose 50 pounds — small changes can make a difference.

"Losing even five to 10 pounds could change whether or not you need medication, in particular for your blood pressure," Pighini said.

• Enjoy regular exercise: Moving is good for the heart. But you don't have to run a marathon or bike 100 miles to get benefits. Regular exercise, whether it's walking, yoga, playing a sport or even just stretching, benefits the heart.

"There are lots of different ways to get exercise," Pighini said. "It doesn't have to be a long run or skinning up the mountain every morning."

• Keep stress low: Stress is hard on the heart.

"It's just like pain," Pighini said. "Stress can raise your blood pressure, and over time, elevated blood pressure can put a strain on your heart and blood vessels."

Figuring out how to reduce stress can be challenging. It might mean stepping back from a few commitments or re-setting expectations for what you can take on. Or, it might mean making time to relax through practicing mindfulness, going for a hike or just taking some time for yourself.

• Toss those cigarettes: Research shows that smoking is bad for your health for a variety of reasons, one of which is increased risk of coronary heart disease.

"Smoking hardens blood vessels and makes them less pliable, putting strain on the heart." Pighini said. "Smoking is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Even those around you who are exposed to second-hand smoke have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease."

• Follow your doctor's suggestions: Your doctor has a variety of tools to help quantify your risk for heart disease and heart attack. Understanding your risk is an important first step. And then, it's crucial to follow the doctor's recommended treatment plan.

"A lot of our recommendations are preventative. That's the goal — to prevent high blood pressure, to prevent high cholesterol, to prevent a cardiovascular event," Pighini said. "Once the event happens, then we're backpedaling. If you follow the recommendations of your provider, you have a much greater chance of avoiding the ER and a possible heart attack."

Though the idea of taking regular medication, such as a statin, can be difficult to accept, your physician can give you the information needed to make a good choice.

"We bring to light the preventative measures we feel you may need, like a medication, but we'll explain why," Pighini said. "It's our job to make sure you have the information you need to make a decision that's best for you."

Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at