For 50 years, the American Heart Association and the CDC have pointed out an obvious link between Valentine's season and public health by declaring February American Heart Month. "A" for effort, I say. But really: A month, out of 12, for the heart? It deserves the best you have all year.
I propose a goal that's more specific to February. Once holidays are over and New Year's resolve has fizzled, it's a great time get back to the basics. I think of February as the "reminder" month, the time to focus on what's essential in life. I like to make a few changes in my life that fine-tune my approach to the basics of health. It's my attempt to get to the "heart" of the matter, literally and spiritually.
There's a great argument for starting right where the AHA and CDC would recommend. No studies prove that heart health is critical to emotional wellbeing, but just try to imagine how much your happiness could be enhanced if you treated this powerful muscle with all due care and respect. In February, though, the "why" interests me more than the "how."
But in case you've ignored the memos about heart health:
- Saturated fats, such as animal fats and butter, elevate cholesterol levels. Olive oil and other unsaturated fats can actually reduce cholesterol.
- If you don't eat ocean fish, try it. Or at least take fish oil supplements. Fish are chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids, acknowledged combatants of heart disease.
- Antioxidants are not hype when they're in whole foods. When you ingest these substances in their natural state, they have abundant health benefits. Get your antioxidants from berries (not juice), oatmeal, raw nuts and moderate doses of dark (75 percent cacao, or raw) chocolate, and some types of alcohol.
- Drink water. And then more water. The jury's out on why, but studies have shown that consuming more than 40 ounces of water per day can decrease the risk of heart attack.
Meanwhile, you should be giving your heart plenty of workouts, as many as your doctor deems advisable for your condition and age. Make it a goal to:
- Exercise vigorously for 75 to 80 minutes a week. Take your pick of activity, but keep at it until you're breathing heavily and don't let up for 20 minutes.
- Include some strength training. Unless you're in a high-risk group, new studies suggest that weight-lifting promotes cardio health.
- Be more active in your daily routine. Choose the stairs over the escalator when you can. Walk a little faster than you usually do.
There's very little to dispute about these guidelines. The supporting evidence is strong, and common sense takes care of the rest.
Now, let's get more subjective and talk about heart health and happiness.
Let's imagine that you've been taking good care of yourself for the last six months. A balanced diet and vigorous exercise are routine. How do you feel? Don't just say "fine, thanks": What do you imagine doing with this happy body and abundance of energy? Do you find that physical activity is becoming easier and more enjoyable? Are you happier with how your body looks? When your body feels so good that it tingles, what activities come to mind?
You see where I'm going with all this. There's an addendum to my advice about physical activity: Have more sex.
As a wellness consultant, I tell clients that in my method, there's always a place for regular sex. And that goes for all clients, happily single or married for decades. Sex makes both the body and the person happy.
Like every other activity, sex requires that you get the blood flowing. Hormones are playing a big role here too, but never forget that getting turned on in the physical sense depends on efficient blood flow: that is, good heart health. sex lowers blood pressure (who's tense afterward?), another win for the heart.
Regular sex tends to come easy for new couples, but why should they have all the fun? During this "reminder month," make a point to remember something about what turned you on to your partner. Make one effort to change things up to get his or her heart beating a little faster. If that's a physical change, so be it: losing weight, styling your hair, and getting a manicure are all great ideas.
But do it for yourself first. The first person who should be happy with your refurbished mojo should be you. Then, share the benefits if you choose.
There is a self-reinforcing system waiting to kick in. When you're both feeling good about yourselves, and physicality is an established element of your togetherness, intimacy tends to follow.
Of course, I'm not suggesting that to please your partner you need to look like a model. The key to intimacy is not how good you look; it's how you feel about your looks. But there's nothing wrong with admitting that physical intimacy played a big role in getting you together. And certainly it can help to keep you together.
By all means, pay attention when the CDC says your heart is the key to your health today and tomorrow. But don't forget that heart health is the foundation of your emotional wellness, because what you feel in the body and in the mind (and the heart) all flows together.
The heart is a complex organ, but use February to cover the basics. Keep building a sustainable diet, and remember that all physical movement is good movement. Go ahead and sex it up by Valentine's Day by giving yourself and a partner a special treat. When the body does it's thing, as a solo or double act, the emotional and spiritual benefits follow.
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