Summer is here, and everyone is eager to return to social activities with family and friends. Heart health might not be at the top of our minds, but in the heat of summer, it pays to take precautions. As you head out for a highly anticipated season of fun in the sun, consider a few simple ways to protect your heart.
Know Common Risk Factors
“There are very well-established risk factors that predispose someone to a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack,” said Dong Bo Yu, M.D., Ph.D., cardiologist with ThedaCare Physicians. “They include high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, obesity, and tobacco use, and affect not only your cardiovascular health, but all organ systems.”
The best way to know if you’re at risk for heart problems is by paying attention to your body.
“If someone is at risk of having a heart attack, more often than not they will see red flags pop up weeks, months, sometimes even years in advance,” said Dr. Yu. “If you are noticing chest pains or shortness of breath every time you walk, don’t ignore your symptoms. Consider seeking medical care.”
That said, focusing on heart health isn’t limited to people who have had heart conditions in the past or are at heightened risk of heart failure. Anyone can prevent heart disease from happening or recurring with the right lifestyle adjustments.
“At the most basic level, people should avoid tobacco use and maintain good sleep hygiene,” said Dr. Yu. “Smoking puts you at extremely high risk for all kinds of cardiovascular disease. Beyond that, it’s mostly about moving more and being cognizant of what is in your diet.”
Summer is a particularly great time to establish a new fitness routine because people can exercise outdoors. This might mean hitting the walking or biking trails, or for those suffering from arthritis, obesity or balance issues, more water-based activities like swimming.
“Swimming or walking in the water provides buoyancy and takes pressure off the joints,” said Dr. Yu. “This can be particularly helpful for someone struggling with extra weight or joint pain.”
Regardless of the season, the American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate activity or 60 minutes of rigorous activity each week. Dr. Yu estimates if everyone in the U.S. reduced their amount of inactivity or sedentary time even by just 10 percent, we could save many thousands of lives per year.
He reiterated that aerobic activity isn’t restricted to traditional exercises like jogging, swimming or biking.
“Exercise can be achieved through activities like dancing, gardening, yard work, or even just routine walks where the person maintains a certain duration or distance,” he said. “If people maintain an activity over time, it can definitely make a difference in terms of heart health.”
If someone is not fit or does not exercise regularly, it’s not too late to start a routine. But Dr. Yu cautions people should take it slow.
“Take it one step at a time and set realistic goals. And listen to your body as you’re exercising. It’s okay to push yourself a little further each time but watch out for signs that you may be going too fast, especially if you’re having significant joint pain or feeling like your body is overwhelmed. In those cases, it’s okay to take things a little slower,” Yu continued.
Maintain a Healthy Diet
“Exercise is really important,” said Dr. Yu. “It’s also extremely important that people pay attention to their diet by incorporating healthier ingredients, calorie counting, and portion control.”
For obese patients, especially, the best way to break the cycle of weight gain is to focus on dietary changes.
“The majority of weight loss is achieved through dietary optimization. You lose weight by eating less and keep the weight off by maintaining consistent diet and exercise,” he said. “Exercise is important for cardiovascular health and keeping the weight off, but when it comes to significant weight loss up front, a healthy diet is critical.”
For individuals struggling to get started, Dr. Yu suggests making gradual changes.
“Even little changes can make a big difference,” he said. “Instead of sugary drinks, try water or tea. People are amazed at how many calories they end up cutting out daily just by eliminating things like soda.”
Protect Yourself in the Summer
In addition to applying sunscreen regularly, using common sense while swimming in open water or hiking in the wild, and wearing reflective gear while running or jogging near heavy traffic, managing your heart health can require a little extra effort during the summer months. Rising temperatures can put the heart under additional stress, increasing the chance of heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
Dr. Yu stresses the importance of two key preventive measures:
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water throughout the day to support healthy blood levels and minimize strain on your heart.
- Take it slow. This is particularly important on hot, humid days, and for the elderly, as well as individuals with existing heart disease, and people taking medications for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and depression.
“We can provide patients with counseling, guidance and tools to better protect their heart health, but it’s really up to each patient to make a change,” said Dr. Yu. “Giving up smoking, getting serious about weight loss and staying smart in the summer heat are critical to avoiding heart failure and heat-related emergencies. I cannot overstate the importance of taking a serious and proactive approach to establishing a heart-healthy lifestyle.”
Are you at increased risk for heart disease? Find out for sure with an online or in-person screening.