When people try to strengthen their heart they usually do so by improving their physical health, like being more active and quitting smoking. While this is valuable, it’s only part of the story.
Heart health is best achieved when you adopt a well-rounded wellness approach, which involves much more than just physical health. This holistic approach is built on six principles: physical, emotional, purposeful, social, spiritual and intellectual.
Each principle is just as important as the last—and just as crucial to developing a stronger ticker. Here are some tips on how you can use each dimension of wellness to build a healthier heart.
Walk Towards a Healthier Lifestyle
Physical activity is vital to maintaining a healthy heart. The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate activity five times a week or 20 minutes of vigorous activity three times a week for healthy aging.
Did you know that having pets might protect you from heart disease? According to the American Heart Association, people with dogs benefit from more physical activity when they walk their dogs. Pets also play an important role in providing social support to owners too, which may help you stick with a new habit like exercising.
Dog owners are 54 percent more likely to meet the physical activity
recommendations from the American Heart Association.
With or without a pet by your side, walking is a low-cost fitness activity that people with different fitness levels can enjoy. Start with 10 minutes, and work up to 30 minutes a day. To help you stick with your routine, encourage others to join you, or start a walking club in your community to make it a fun social experience.
Being Happy is an Investment in Your Heart
For years doctors thought the connection between mental health and heart health was behavioral. They thought people who were feeling sad or depressed would make unhealthy lifestyle choices in order to feel better, like eating junk food or smoking. And these bad choices would lead to heart-related issues.
Today, research shows there could be physiological connections, too. Biological and chemical factors that trigger mental health issues could also influence heart health.
“Stress may now be considered a risk factor for heart disease, because it can increase hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which impact your blood pressure and heart rate,” says Nieca Goldberg, MD, a medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at New York University’s Lagone Medical Center.
Dr. Patrick McBride, a co-director of the University of Wisconsin Health Preventive Cardiology Program, says “reducing stress and treating depression are not only beneficial for your emotional state, but for your heart, too.”
“Really negative stress has an effect on our body, releasing chemicals that cause irritation and inflammation for our heart and blood vessels,” he adds.
Exercise and physical activity can help counter the effects of stress, but laughter may be good for your heart too. Research shows that laughter can decrease stress hormones, reduce artery inflammation and increase HDL, the “good cholesterol”; according to Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, an attending cardiologist and director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
A study by cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore found people
with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh than people without heart disease.
Laughter, an active sense of humor and a positive outlook on life have the potential to improve heart health and maybe even prevent heart disease.
Protect Your Heart by Living a Purposeful Life
Having a high sense of purpose in life may lower our risk for heart disease and stroke, according to a new study by lead author, Randy Cohen, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai Roosevelt.
Purpose is defined as a sense of meaning and direction — a feeling that life is worth living.
“Developing and refining your sense of purpose could protect your heart health and potentially save your life,” says Cohen.
Previous research linked a sense of purpose to stronger psychological health and well-being.
This study found that a high sense of purpose is associated with a 23 percent
reduction in death from all causes and a 19 percent reduced risk of
heart attack, stroke or the need for coronary bypass surgery.
Do you have a sense of purpose in your life? Maybe it’s a connection to family and friends, or maybe it’s a meaningful opportunity to volunteer and help others. Creating music and art can bring meaning and purpose too.
Find Value in Meaningful Social Connections
Loneliness and social isolation can impact our health, and now researchers have details on how the lack of meaningful relationships can affect our risk for heart disease and stroke.
Consider the Roseto effect, a term used to describe the impact of community bonds on heart health discovered in Roseto, Pennsylvania, a town settled by Italian immigrants.
A fifty-year study from 1935 to 1985 showed that people in Roseto died from
heart disease half as often as people in neighboring towns with the
same water supply, income level, occupations and ethnic demographics.
Roseto residents even had the same bad habits of other towns, like smoking, drinking and unhealthy diets. Only one noticeable difference explained the variation. Roseto residents benefited from valued social connections in a tight-knit community.
A study by researchers at the University of York found that people with fewer social connections have a 29 percent higher risk of having heart disease and 32 percent higher risk of having a stroke when compared to their peers who felt well-connected.
According to Christiane Northrup, MD, a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness, “it’s important to take steps to build your own social support network or tribe.”
Northrup suggests the following to help you create the Roseto Effect in your life:
- Release your cultural programming, and be open to stepping outside of the community you were born into if it is no longer serving you.
- Open yourself up to new ideas. Try a new activity to connect with a new community of people.
- Reach out online. Social media can be a great way to connect with others and begin new relationships. You could even start a blog to attract new members of your tribe.
- Practice stepping out. Volunteer in your community, take an art class or find a spiritual community that feels authentic to you.
Programs that offer social opportunities, like activities for seniors, have also been found to improve social connections and decrease loneliness.
Don’t underestimate the value of social relationships or the impacts of social isolation when it comes to heart health. Invest in connecting with others and building a supportive community.
Gratitude is Good for the Heart
Gratitude, a tenet of spirituality, can improve mental physical health in patients with asymptomatic heart failure, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.
Paul J. Mills, PhD, professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego says “we found that more gratitude in these patients was associated with better mood, better sleep, less fatigue and lower levels of biomarkers associated with cardiac health.”
The spiritual practice of meditation or mindfulness can also have health benefits. In their book, Freedom from Stress, David and Karen Gamow describe the significant benefits of meditation for many health conditions. In a study of health insurance statistics, meditators had 87 percent fewer hospitalizations for heart disease.
No matter how you may define your sense of spirituality, most agree it’s one way we find meaning, hope, comfort and inner peace in life. Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, with Solutions Acupuncture, published work with the University of Maryland Medical Center.
“Spiritual practices tend to improve copying skills and social support, foster feelings of optimism and hope, promote healthy behavior and reduce anxiety,” says Ehrlich.
Spiritual outlooks have long been associated with better mental and physical health. These benefits may stem from being focused less on ourselves and more on others.
Keep your heart healthy by nurturing your spirit and beliefs.
Fight Stress With New Intellectual Challenges
Laura Kubzansky, an associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health, found that emotional vitality — a sense of enthusiasm, hopefulness and engagement in life — appears to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.
We know that the “wear and tear” of prolonged stress can increase the risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Chronic anger and anxiety can disrupt cardiac function by changing the heart’s electric stability and increasing inflammation.
Pursuing new intellectual challenges with curiosity and optimism can improve our heart health. Kubzansky discovered that optimism cuts the risk of coronary heart disease in half.
Continuing to be lifelong learners and exploring new ideas and skills allows us to engage in life with hope and enthusiasm. You mind will thank you for it, and so will your heart.
Remember, taking care of your heart is an important part of aging well, but there’s more to consider than just the physical dimension of wellness. Evidence and research now suggests that the emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual and purposeful dimensions of wellness are also important for a healthy heart.