February is American Heart Month, and with it comes the dedication to raising awareness and increasing* our knowledge of heart disease, its symptoms, and ways we can lower our risks. Did you know that heart disease is the number one cause of death for men and women in America? But interestingly enough, the symptoms differ between men and women. So what better time to discuss these symptoms for women and explore ways we can reduce* the risks through diet and exercise?!
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the cause of 1 in every 4 female deaths in America and almost “2/3 of women who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms.” With such high numbers, it is extremely important for women to understand the symptoms, should you have any, and the risk factors involved.
The most common symptom which is associated with a heart attack, is pressure, discomfort, or pain in the chest. For women, this pain may actually be in other places, such as the neck or jaw, upper abdomen, or back. It is not unheard of for women to have a heart attack with no chest pain at all. This is a key difference from men.
The Mayo Clinic includes a few other heart attack symptoms for women that may not seem related to a heart attack, but could very well be one. These include shortness of breath, pain in one of both arms, nausea or vomiting, sweating, lightheadedness or dizziness, and unusual fatigue.
Because the symptoms above are often more subtle, women may not believe they’re having a heart attack, so when they end up in the Emergency Room, the damage has already been done. Even more reason to be on the lookout for these issues.
Other symptoms, from the CDC, in addition to a heart attack include arrhythmia (“fluttering feelings in the chest”), heart failure (“shortness of breath, fatigue, swelling of the feet/ankles/legs/abdomen”), and stroke (“sudden weakness, paralysis or numbness of the face/arms/legs, especially on one side of the body”).
A risk factor is something we can track that helps predict whether or not we’ll be affected by certain diseases. These are the things we can try to improve*! The most common risk factors for both men and women are high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, smoking, and obesity.
For women though, there are several others that come into play – diabetes, mental stress and depression, lack of activity, a poor diet, and pregnancy complications (high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy can increase* the long term risk of high blood pressure and diabetes).
Some of these risk factors are more easily improved* and can actually affect the others (think better diet, better cholesterol). So let’s discuss two areas in our lives where we can make a big impact, lack of activity and diet.
We hear over and over again, from all kinds or sources, that we need to exercise. And it’s true. Regular exercise can help reduce* the risk of heart disease (and of course a ton of other negative things as well). So, just get up and get moving. Sounds easy right? But we all know it isn’t.
“I don’t have time to work out.” “I can’t afford a gym membership.” “I hate cardio.” “I don’t even know what workouts to do.” These are all common excuses that we can get rid of right now! Because working out does NOT need to be complicated, fancy, expensive, or time consuming.
First things first, you need to decide WHAT you like to do. Do you enjoy running? Great! Or maybe tennis? Also great. How about weight lifting? Or online videos you can follow along with? Classes taught by trained instructors? There are a million different activities out there that you can choose from to help you get moving.
Just because you need to work out, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it too! The number one thing you can do for yourself, is find something that is maintainable. Choose a program that works for YOU, that you enjoy, and one that you can keep doing for more than a few months. The goal here is to exercise for 30 minutes, 5 days a week.
Once you find out what you like to do, or you find a program that interests you, figure out WHEN you’ll work out. Can you wake up earlier to work out before you start your day? Does your work have an office gym or is there one close by you could utilize during your lunch break? Do you have 30 minutes to spare after work before it’s dinner time? Or maybe, the only option is to get it done in the evening, after all the kids have gone to bed.
Doesn’t matter which you choose because there’s pros and cons to each. And you don’t have to stick to one set schedule. Sometimes you just have to be flexible.
After you’ve got your program and you’ve got your time, all you need to do is get moving! Here’s a few simple tips to include in your everyday life to improve* your activity and reduce* your risk of heart disease:
1. When at work, park farther away so you need to walk.
2. Use a standing desk rather than sitting all day. If that’s not feasible, take frequent breaks to get up and move around or try some seated exercises.
3. Always be prepared ahead of time for your workout. Lay out your clothes and shoes plus whatever extras you might need the day before. You’ll be less likely to skip it when the time comes.
4. Find a workout buddy or an accountability group to join. It’s always easier to stay on track when you have someone else to support you.
5. Purchase an activity tracker, like a Fitbit, to help you reach your goals.
6. If you don’t have time for a full 30 minute workout, break it up into 10 minute segments throughout the day.
7. Rather than going to a family movie, choose a more engaging activity. Sign up for a group race!
8. When doing every day house chores, add in a little bit of exercise. Do leg lifts while brushing your teeth. Squats while emptying or loading the dishwasher. The options are endless.
When we hear the word diet, it usually comes with a negative connotation. Most people don’t like to diet. Or don’t want to diet. And who can blame them? Diets are often restricting, limiting, and difficult to maintain for long periods of time. But eating healthier can help reduce* the risk of heart disease and has countless other benefits for our lives. So instead of dieting, just clean it up.
First things first, you want to minimize the amount of processed foods and fast food eaten every day. These types of foods are high in salt, or sugar, or fat, and sometimes all three at once. Plus, they contribute to higher cholesterol. Instead of processed foods, go for “real” foods such as lean protein (chicken and turkey), fish, beans, fruits, and veggies.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to cook. If you don’t like to cook, try to either find healthier restaurants (Panera or CoreLife Eatery are great choices) or choose healthier options at the restaurants you normally frequent.
If you do like to cook, but find yourself cooking not so healthy meals because they’re quick and easy, get yourself a new recipe book, or check out any of the amazing blogs out there for new recipes. You don’t need to skimp on flavor or spend more time in the kitchen just because you’re cooking healthier!
Here’s a few simple tips to include in your everyday life to improve* your diet and reduce* your risk of heart disease.
1. Watch portion sizes. Look up the correct portions and stick to them. If you’re eating out, pack up half of your meal to take home.
2. Eat more fruits and vegetables. These will help keep you full throughout the meal and help you to stay on track.
3. Cook with less butter. Instead use olive oil.
4. Replace one meal a week with fish. Salmon is a great choice because it’s high in omega-3 fatty acids.
5. Drink low fat milk or skim, over whole.
6. Plan your meals ahead of time and if possible, prep ahead of time as well. You’ll be less likely to make (or buy) something quick and fatty if you’ve got a plan.
7. Choose whole grain instead of white. Brown rice over white too!
8. Don’t limit yourself. If you’re craving pizza, eat pizza. But don’t let that be the catalyst to an entire day or week of binging.It’s not a diet, just a cleaner version.
With heart disease being the number one cause of death for women in America, it is so important for us to understand the symptoms, the risk factors, and what we can do to prevent it. A few tweaks to our diet, an addition of activity, and we’ll be well on our way to a healthier life. Remember, it doesn’t need to be complicated, fancy, expensive, or time consuming!