Heart 411: Tips for Heart Healthy Holidays

Doctors have long recognized that the holiday season can be tough on your heart. Overeating, excess alcohol, stress and lack of exercise can all contribute to cardiac issues. Follow a few simple tips to ensure your heart health during the holidays and to kick off a healthy new year.

Stress
Stress can trigger heart attacks. Emotional stress activates our “fight or flight response,” which includes increased blood pressure and heart rate, and changes in blood clotting and inflammation, all of which can combine to precipitate a heart attack in a vulnerable person. Emotional stress is probably one of the reasons that more people die of heart attacks on Christmas Day than on any other day of the year.

Limit stress over the holidays. Schedule some time for relaxation and exercise. Don’t pack your holiday schedule with an hour-by-hour list of commitments, parties and visits. And if certain events cause undue stress (e.g. dinner at your mother-in-law’s) make a different plan this year.

Diet
It’s easy to put on a few extra pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year. We are not going to suggest that you begin the holiday season by embarking upon a strict new weight loss plan. Aim for a more realistic goal: try not to gain weight during the holidays. The key to weight is calories, and around the holidays that means paying attention to portion sizes and desserts. It is all-too-easy to eat everything on your plate and then return to the buffet for seconds before a final trip to the dessert table. Make only a single trip to the buffet. Favor lean meats, high fiber offerings, fruits and vegetables. Skip the macaroni salad (high in saturated fat, low in fiber) and the processed meats (high in saturated fat and salt). If you must have dessert, choose just one item, preferably something small.

A New Year’s Toast: Alcohol and the Heart
A toast to the New Year is fine. But you must avoid overindulgence. While scientific evidence supports moderate alcohol consumption as part of a heart healthy lifestyle, the health balance shifts when people have too much alcohol. Women should limit themselves to one drink per day, and men to two. More alcohol increases the risks of a wide variety of health problems, ranging from abnormal heart rhythms to liver damage. It’s okay if you prefer white wine or beer to red wine; moderate consumption of any sort of alcohol is associated with heart health.

Exercise
Many of us spend the holidays on a comfortable sofa watching our favorite football and basketball teams on a giant flat screen television. Remember that watching sports is not the same as playing sports. Let your team’s athleticism inspire you to get off the couch! Make sure that you reserve some time for exercise during the holidays. Go for a walk with visiting relatives. Play tennis with your kids. Organize a family game of touch football. You’ll have fun, burn off a few extra calories, and put yourself and your family on the road to cardiovascular health.

Gift Ideas
Few of us need a new necktie or another scarf. Those gifts find a spot in the back of your closet and surface again only at spring cleaning. Give your friends and relatives gifts that they will use and enjoy (and that will improve their health). Consider putting one of these in the stocking:

Health club membership

Running shoes

Bicycle

Fruit basket (without the salted nuts or salami that nobody eats, anyway)

Gift certificate to a farmer’s market

Simple New Years’s Resolution
This year, resolve to check your numbers. Make a doctor’s appointment to get a handle on your heart health. This means checking your lipid profile (cholesterol), blood pressure, body mass index and blood sugar (if you are overweight). Once you have these in hand, make a plan with your doctor to optimize each value, ensuring that you reach the next New Year with a healthy heart.

For more information about how you can keep your heart healthy, visit the Cleveland Clinic’s Heart 411 site.


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