Heart disease remains one of the top causes of deaths in the US. Learn how to improve your heart health by knowing your risk factors and finding ways to become more active and healthy. For Heart Health Month, APU’s Stacey Malinowski provides many great ways to improve your overall health starting with knowing your risk factors by measuring you BMI, waist circumference, blood pressure and cholesterol. She offers ways to improve your health through increased activity and portion control, but also learning to be more mindful of what you’re eating, how you’re eating, what’s causing you stress, and what your body is telling you.
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Read the Transcript:
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today, we’re talking to Stacey Malinowski, Assistant Dean in the School of Health Sciences. And today, we’re talking about heart health. And welcome, Stacey.
Stacey Malinowski: Thank you for having me.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And so February’s coming up, which is a great time to talk about good heart health. And so as a nurse, what do you recommend for good heart health?
Stacey Malinowski: Well, there are several things we can do, and I love that we take the month of February to really focus on this issue, because we’ve been celebrating American Heart Month since 1964, and yet, we still haven’t made great strides in reducing the effects of heart disease in the United States. And as a matter of fact, we still have one out of every four deaths caused by heart disease. And that’s one person dying every 36 seconds.
[Related Article: American Heart Month and Gender Disparities in Heart Health]
So, as a nurse, there’s kind of two main categories of things I think that we can do. And the first is understanding your risk factors that you might have. Because we have modifiable, ones that we can change and ones that we can’t. So there’s numbers that I like for patients to know.
So the first one is your BMI, or your body mass index, because we know obesity can lead to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and a lot of other illnesses. So knowing what your body mass index is, it’s a lot more telling than just knowing what your weight is, because it’s a calculation. You can go online and just Google “BMI calculator,” and it will put in your height and your weight. And it will tell you what your BMI is. And you want to shoot for a BMI of less than 24.9. Anything less than 25 is considered normal weight, 25 and over you start to get into the overweight category. And, sadly, right now we’re at about 74% of Americans are considered overweight or obese.
So the other thing that I’d like patients to know, is their waist circumference. People of don’t think about that, but there is a predictor between the size of your waist and your risk for heart disease. So, measure your waist, around your belly button. And for women, a waist circumference of over 35 inches, and over 40 inches for men, is an indicator that you could be at greater risk.
Okay. Next thing, blood pressure. We can easily get our blood pressure screened now at Walmart, or any pharmacy you might go into, there’s blood pressure monitoring machines. And you want to shoot for a blood pressure of less than 120/80.
It is important to remember that one blood pressure reading over that number doesn’t mean you have high blood pressure, it’s just something that we like to watch over time. So getting physicals on a regular basis with your doctor, checking your blood pressure in between visits so you can kind of see your trends and know where your blood pressure is. That’s a really good thing that you can do to minimize your risk of heart disease.
And then getting your cholesterol checked. Know your cholesterol numbers every four to six years after age 20 is the recommendation, and you want to have a total cholesterol of less than 200.
And the last number you should know is your blood sugar level. Starting around age 45, every three to four years, unless you have receptors for diabetes, you should start having blood sugars checked. Your target blood sugar is less than 100 first thing in the morning when you wake up, that’s known as your fasting blood sugar.
So, once you know those numbers, several things you can do on a daily basis to help reduce your risk. First and foremost, if you smoke, please stop. That’s number one. It affects your blood pressure, it leads to increased inflammation in your blood vessels. Just find a way to stop, as hard as it is.
Second is increasing your activity. Activity level and exercise is such a simple thing because it doesn’t cost a lot of money. It doesn’t take tons and tons of time. Current recommendations are 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise. So that sounds like a lot, but if you break it down, it’s 22 minutes a day. And they’re actually saying short bursts are just as beneficial, if not more, than doing it all at one time.
So what is moderate exercise? Think about things like lightly riding a bicycle, taking a brisk walk. It could be mowing the grass, it could be vacuuming your house. Those all count. Or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise: Jogging, playing basketball, riding a bicycle really fast, those types of activities. Again, spread it out over the week, it doesn’t have to be all at once.
But when you’re increasing your exercise, you’re reducing weight, you are reducing blood pressure, cholesterol. It’s just a very positive habit to get into. Get your friends, get your family, and get out there and get moving.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Those are all excellent, excellent ideas on how to improve your heart health. And there’s so much, really, to unpack there. First of all, with the BMI, you said it’s 74% of Americans are overweight?
Stacey Malinowski: Yes.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And it’s really sad, it’s been going up and up. And I’ve always thought if the U.S. can get our BMI to be similar to Japan’s, and Japan is the largest, “richest” country with the best BMI out there. And, unfortunately, the U.S. has the worst BMI of all of the, I guess, large, rich countries out there. And it’s hard to communicate to people that having a good BMI is such an important part of a healthy life. So for my BMI, typically, is about 24.8. And if I gain like two pounds, it’s at 25. But I also exercise five days a week and I do a lot of weight training. And so, I guess I can say my weight is a little heavier for my size, I guess, my height, but then it’s not because I’m overweight, it’s just because of my build. And so that’s one thing you always have to look at.
But when you get to the obese number and the number of Americans that are obese, which I think last time I checked was 40%, maybe 37% to 40%. If we can get our numbers from 37% to 40% down to 5% like Japan, the health savings would be amazing, besides the fact that everybody would be healthier. Now, what are some different things that you recommend as far as diet goes?
Stacey Malinowski: That’s a great question because you can’t outrun a bad diet. So it doesn’t matter how much exercise you’re doing, you do need to make changes. And I think one of the big differences probably between Japan and the United States is our diet, what we’re eating.
First and foremost is whole foods and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains. You want to have lean sources of protein, of course, all of which are a lot more expensive and take more time to prepare than your processed convenience foods. But there really is just a major difference.
Go for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and they say, “Eat the rainbow,” because every one of those fruits and vegetables has different vitamins and minerals and nutrients that you can’t get from other food sources. So just look at the recommendations, making sure you’re getting those five fruits and vegetables a day.
And I think another really important concept with eating, no matter what you eat, is that portion distortion, because I know I’m guilty of it myself. Because if I actually try to count out a serving of potato chips, it’s really sad how many you can actually have in an ounce of potato chips. And that’s what I’ve taught my children. “You can have what you want, but you can only have a serving of it.” So they’re like, “Wow, that’s not worth it to me to just have whatever.” Or they’ll get out their three Oreos. And they know if they’re Double Stuf Oreos, they can only have two. But they’re in that habit now. And it’s the same thing. They’ll say, “Oh, I ate my vegetables.” “Well, was it a cup? Was that a cup of broccoli you ate? No, it wasn’t.”
So, it’s the same thing. So it goes both ways. It help them make sure they’re getting enough of their healthier foods. And it helps us minimize the processed foods we eat. Because I would love to say that I never let my family eat anything processed or bad, but, unfortunately, I do. So we minimize where we can.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Well, yeah and that’s being human. Humans love to eat stuff that’s salty, and fatty, and yummy, and it’s great. But at the same time, we need to eat highly dense, nutrient-rich food, in that sense, where there’s a lot of natural nutrients. And, unfortunately, highly processed food strip, they just become calories or they’re just very high in sugars. And again, those things taste great, typically, because there’s a lot of sugar and a lot of salt.
But, just like you said, portion size is so important. And it’s really a struggle because you go to a restaurant or you go to fast food and the portion size is way too big. Most restaurants and most fast food present you with portion size that aren’t for an average-sized human. So just what you get, you shouldn’t eat all of it. You should maybe cut that burger in half. Cut those fries in half.
And that’s actually, if you just eat half of that, you’ll be full if you then stop and don’t let your like, “Oh my gosh, this is so good. I’m just going to eat it all,” which is totally understandable. And that’s why having good, I guess, you can say portion size, is kind of a struggle, because the wider world will just give you more and more food.
Stacey Malinowski: Well, I think too, and that’s where mindfulness can come into play. If you do any of the mainstream diet it plans, and they’ll say, “One of the tips for eating out is ask for them to box half your meal before it’s even served to you.” So they’re serving you half a portion, which is a great idea, because I know if it’s in front of me, I will probably eat it.
But I have done classes in mindfulness in the past where they really teach you to focus on what you’re eating and putting into your body. And even just the process of chewing, thoroughly through your food and enjoying the company around you. So let’s stop eating in front of the TV and stop being distracted. So we realize how much we are actually putting into our bodies.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And there’s always the story of the French who have very high fat diet, but they’re all “fit” and it’s because of portion size. And so this leads me to my other question is, as a nurse, what do you recommend for dealing with one’s stress and having a less stressful life or just dealing with the stress of everyday life?
Stacey Malinowski: That’s a tricky question, too, because stress is all around us, especially lately. And you know what stresses me out might not be what stresses you out. So I think it’s important for people to, again, go back to mindfulness and stop and take a pause. What is it that’s stressing you out? What can you remove from your life? We all have full plates and everybody’s plates are different sizes. So you need to see what’s on your plate and what you can maybe do to remove it.
I always exercise. Exercise, really, I think it feels good. When you are exercising, you’re feeling better, you’re sleeping better. It’s going to help with your stress. It gives you an outlet for some of the energy, positive or negative, that you’ve stored up. So whatever that is for you, whether it’s taking a walk, whether it’s yoga, stretching. I mean, finding exercise that works for you. Finding an activity you enjoy and can disconnect from the world.
I say, take a break from your electronics and your social media because you are constantly being bombarded with stimulus. Positive, negative. There’s just so many messages out there. So take a break from your social media and just be present. Bring in the moment with yourself. And again, take a walk, just sit, talk, read a book, whatever that is for you. But I think people need to be very serious about carving out time for them on a regular basis to help minimize the daily impacts of stress on their body.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree. Stress is one of those things that, just like you said, everybody’s plate’s different. What we do in every day, and what our family looks like, and our job or jobs, look like are very different. And so we really have to think about what are we doing to really, holistically, make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves.
And then oftentimes, people in a hustle culture will like, “Well, I have my job and I’ve got to make more money. I’ve got to do something else and I’ve got to do something else.” That’s all great. But you also need to make sure that you take care of your body, your mind, and your heart.
And that typically means you need to schedule some time to do nothing. And that nothing sometimes is reading a book. Sometimes it’s doing a hobby. It’s doing art. And although that might not be viewed as some as “productive time,” it’s extremely productive because you’re replenishing yourself. And it’s not social media, because social media can anger you at times. And it’s very passive. And it’s, I think, like you said, it’s still very stimulating. Or TV. That doesn’t help, per se, in recouping who you are. Any other recommendations for a good heart health?
Stacey Malinowski: Well, I think the main thing is to listen to your body and to take cues from yourself. When you start to feel tired, you need to take care of yourself. You need to rest, get some good sleep. If you’re feeling stressed out, you need to stop and pause and find a positive way to refuel. Reducing your stress, taking good care of yourself when you start feel a little rundown, a little sick, stop and take care of yourself before things get worse. And just finding that time for you for exercise, for stress relief, I can’t stress that enough.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And, unfortunately, when people say have a heart attack or anything like that, the doctor usually says, “Go on a vacation. Relax. You need to reduce the stress.” And I think for many people, they don’t quite realize that until they reach some sort of tipping point. And so having those good habits starting today, a little every day, will really pay off, long term. Today, we’re speaking with Stacey Malinowski about heart health. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thanks for listening.