At Valentine's Day we have hearts on our minds, so why not mind our hearts? The library holds a selection of books for heart health. I pulled three books from my local library to help add heart health to my observation of Valentine's Day.
"Heart 411" is a thick compendium by cardiologists Marc Gillinov and Steven Nissen. The chapters are neatly written with sound, easy-to-read advice at the beginning, backed up by scientific details that can be skimmed until you want to understand the full implications. "Mind Your Heart" by Aggie Casey and Herbert Benson is a thoughtful approach to heart health written by medical professionals. Neither Valentine's Day nor a heart health discussion would be complete without food, so I also chose the "All Heart Family Cookbook" from WomenHeart.
Let's use these books to invigorate a five part heart-to-heart about healthy hearts.
Get to the heart of your treatable risk factors. Many risk factors for heart disease can be improved with medicine or lifestyle changes according to "Mind Your Heart":
"As frightening as it may be to read about, the development of heart disease is predictable -- and largely preventable. The first step is to identify the factors that put you at risk for heart disease and then take steps to reduce your risk."
"Heart 411" recommends a blood pressure check every couple of years and blood tests for cholesterol and diabetes somewhat less often. Tobacco users and people who are obese should be checked more often while taking other steps to improve their health. Do you know about the more recently discovered risk factors for heart problems? These include sleep apnea and gum disease. I'm making an appointment with my doctor this month and my dentist next month to make sure I understand my risk factors.
Eat to your heart's content. The "All Heart Family Cookbook" identifies 40 foods that are good for your heart and offers recipes using those ingredients. It's fun to approach a healthy diet with a list of good foods to eat rather than the common method of banishing unhealthy foods. I'm planning a romantic Valentine's Day dinner that begins with a dark leafy green salad and ends with a square of dark chocolate.
Move to the beat of your heart. "Heart 411" recommends exercise "just about every day" to build the heart muscle, using a mix of aerobic and resistance training with appropriate stretches.
The mind/body approach in "Mind Your Heart" gives an added dimension to exercise:
"...exercise becomes a means of self-observation, a way to increase self-awareness, rather than just an outcome-oriented activity with a physical focus. When you begin to view exercise as a way of life and not as an obligation, then you are truly on the path to improving your physical and spiritual health."
Warm your heartfelt emotions. I was surprised to learn that more recent research has refined the thinking about type A personalities. According to "Mind Your Heart":
"It now appears that the most toxic elements of type A behavior are subcomponents of the personality profile, such as anger, hostility and cynical thinking."
Apparently we can be driven, competitive and experience a sense of urgency without increasing our health risks. We just need to be nice about it if we want to protect our hearts.
Newer research points to the dangers of what "Heart 411" calls a type D personality featuring distress and depression along with related emotions. "Heart 411" recommends choosing from a variety of options for managing stress and boosting moods, everything from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to prayer to laughter.
"Mind Your Heart" advises consciously seeking a relaxation response as a balance to those times when we have a fight-or-flight response. The book describes a number of techniques for eliciting the relaxation response with activities like diaphragmatic breathing, visualization exercises, or yoga.
Make a whole-hearted effort to sustain the change. "Mind Your Heart" ends with a chapter called "Making It Work" and a reminder:
"Change, after all, is a journey -- and it is like any journey, filled with unexpected twists and turns, challenges that might set you back a few steps, moments of frustration as well as elation. It is the rare person who is able to embrace change without a few setbacks. Most of us take a few steps forward, then a few steps back."
This chapter includes tips for preventing a relapse to the old lifestyle with encouragement to identify our own positive strategies.
Let's celebrate Valentine's Day as an enjoyable activity that lifts emotions, incorporating a mindful or companionable walk and a heart-healthy meal. The holiday devoted to hearts is a good day to determine if your heart is in the right place for good health.
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