Key to healthy heart is diet, exercise

Provided photo Dr. Terry Kinzel of UP Health Systems - Portage hospital advises the best way to attain good heart health is through diet and exercise.

Feb. 14 was Valentine’s Day, but that’s not the only reason to be thinking of your heart. February is also Heart Health Month. In honor of that, Dr. Terry Kinzel of UP Health Systems – Portage has a few things to say about heart health.

“The function of the heart is to take the blood, pump it to the lungs where it picks up oxygen, and pump it through the body to deliver nutrients,” said Kinzel. “There are three main aspects of heart health, the electrical system, the pumps, and the plumbing.”

What Kinzel calls “the electrical system” is the system that keeps the heart pumping at a proper rate and rhythm. The “plumbing” includes your heart’s valves, your veins and your arteries which brings blood throughout your body. What he calls “the pumps” is the muscle of the heart that powers the blood’s movement. There’s not a whole lot that people can generally do to take care of these first two aspects of heart health, but the third is different.

“The pumps are the muscles of the heart. This is the part that is our responsibility. You have to take care of it,” said Kinzel. “It has to be supple enough that the heart can relax to let blood in and it has to be strong enough for the heart to pump the blood out.”

The heart can lose strength after a heart attack. Like any other muscle, the heart needs blood to work. This blood is delivered to the heart through arteries on the outside surface. If these veins clog, the heart can’t get the oxygen rich blood that it needs. “If that stays long enough, that muscle dies and once it’s dead it’s dead,” said Kinzel.

As for the heart losing its important suppleness, this can happen with a process called “hardening of the arteries,” or “atherosclerosis.” The most important risk factor for atherosclerosis is smoking. Family history is also important, but even people with a high family history can do something to reduce the remaining factors. The final factors are high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Both of these may be caused by a poor diet and lack of exercise, but they can also be caused by other factors that are harder to control.

“There are habits that manage blood pressure but some people just have high blood pressure, and there are medications that can help those people,” said Kinzel. “There are people who have diabetes simply because of the way their bodies are made but there’s an epidemic of [preventable] diabetes.”

One of the best ways to maintain a healthy heart is through exercise. Walking is a great aerobic exercise to help stimulate heart health. A general recommendation is for at least 150 minutes of exercise each week, or roughly half an hour five days per week. It’s also good to incorporate different kinds of activity including aerobic activity like running, resistance training like weight lifting or body weight exercises, and balance training like yoga or tai chi. Strength and balance exercises are particularly important as people get older.

“As we age, our bodies change such that it becomes harder to maintain [muscle],” said Kinzel. “Proprioception deteriorates and the inner ear doesn’t work the way that it should.”

Another important aspect of heart health is proper nutrition. Keeping dietary recommendations straight can be hard but Kinzel recommends following food author Michael Pollen’s slogan: “Eat food; not too much; mostly plants.” Broken down and expanded, this means eat minimally processed foods, not more food than you need to maintain a healthy body weight given your level of activity, and make sure that most of your diet comes from fresh vegetables and whole grains. “This doesn’t mean that you can’t have dairy or meats, it just means that they shouldn’t be the all-stars of your diet,” said Kinzel. Kinzel also recommended fruit and nuts in moderation, as they provide important vitamins and minerals but are also high in calories.

Finally, Kinzel says that a final aspect of maintaining a healthy heart is managing stress. For this, Kinzel recommends finding time to be outside without technology and without worrying about work and responsibilities. He also recommends finding something that you enjoy doing just for yourself, and giving to others. “When we start thinking about what we can do for someone else, it takes our minds off of everything else,” said Kinzel.

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