A New Approach for Heart Health

My family has a history of heart disease and heart attacks, so cardiovascular health is very important to me. As the pandemic has gone on and on, I’ve stopped lifting at a gym and find myself sitting a lot more than I used to – and weighing more than I used to. As someone who’s dealt with disordered eating and poor self-esteem, this has been hard for me. I realized this week that I need a new approach to my own health, especially my cardiovascular health.

A lot of the time I approach my health from a scarcity mindset: I’m not doing enough, I’m eating crappy foods, I’m destroying my health, I have bad mental health because I’m not working hard enough to fix myself. I’ve had thoughts like this on and off for a long time, but the pandemic has given me a period of particularly negative thinking. But shaming yourself, talking to yourself from a place of blame and guilt, doesn’t help protect your health or make you happier. So I’m shifting focus.

Shaming yourself, talking to yourself from a place of blame and guilt, doesn’t help protect your health or make you happier.

What pushed me over the edge was crying hysterically before an event; I was getting dressed up (i.e. not in Hello Kitty pajama pants) for the first time in a while and almost none of my jeans or denim shorts fit. I’m realizing now that there’s some dissonance between what I thought about bodies in general and what I thought about my own body, and another dissonance between why I thought I had body image troubles and why I have body image troubles.

Again that scarcity mindset comes into play. So much of what I thought distressed me about my body was how I look (I’m too fat, I don’t eat healthy enough to look my best, etc.) when as I’ve gotten older a good chunk of that stress actually comes from concerns about my health and control of my health. As mentioned previously, my family has a history of heart problems and I know that excessive visceral fat is a risk factor for heart problems; at some point in my mind those thoughts of “I’m too fat to look good” and “I’m too fat to remain healthy” melded together (Of course, neither of those are generally true statements to begin with. Health is a lot more complex than being “too fat.”) What was once just a dislike of my physical shape because I didn’t think I was good enough has shapeshifted into something more complex.

This shift got me thinking: If I can accept that concern for my health comes from a place of self-care and not a place of scarcity, I can build caring for my mental and physical health from there. I can build on a mindset of self-care and desire for a healthy, happy life instead of building on the shaky foundation of low self-esteem and scarcity.

I can build on a mindset of self-care and desire for a healthy, happy life instead of building on the shaky foundation of low self-esteem and scarcity.

Now, I’m trying to keep my heart healthy not by creating rules for myself but by cultivating a life I want to live, a life where my health and happiness are priorities not because it’s popular or looks good but because it offers me joy and ease. For example, instead of telling myself I can’t have donuts because of the trans fat, I focus on the things I need to eat in a day to maintain my health – a balance of proteins, heart-friendly fats, and carbohydrates where I get enough calories to sustain activity. And if I want a donut, I eat a donut.

There are three specific areas I focus on to keep myself (my heart, especially) in tip-top shape:

  1. Reducing stress
  2. Cardio training
  3. Heart-healthy eating

Reducing Stress

Reading Buddha’s Brain has really cemented the mind-body connection for me. Taking care of my mental health supports my heart, and vice versa. As a person with heightened anxiety (exacerbated by the pandemic, like many of us) slowing down and meditating has helped me quiet my overactive SNS (sympathetic nervous system; this piece of the nervous system is commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ piece) to support healthier stress reactions for my whole body.

Here is a heart-forward breathwork meditation I do often, adapted from Buddha’s Brain:

First, become aware of your breath. There is no need to change its pattern just yet; allow it to be, and keep it at the forefront of your mind. As you settle in, begin to adjust the breath so that the inhale and exhale are the same length. 

Your inhale and exhale are now of the same length. Begin to imagine breathing into your heart space. Imagine the breath entering your nose and flowing into the area of your heart. Stay here as long as you'd like.

Now, as you breath into your heart space, conjure feelings of joy and bliss. Breath joy and bliss into the area around your heart. Allow joy and bliss to fill that space. Again, stay here as long as you'd like.

Finish up with a deep breath in, and a looooong breath out. Allow your breathing to return to its natural pacing, and send gratitude yourself for taking time for this short meditation.

Cardio

Since the pandemic I have not been a competitive athlete. This is the first time in my life I haven’t been on an athletic team and competing regularly, and that threw my fitness routine off. What were my goals? Why should I keep those goals, with no deadlines or prizes in sight?

This new phase of my life has meant I’ve needed to find new motivations for fitness. And the motivation I’ve finally found and been able to stick with is a generally healthy heart. For me that’s meant incorporating cardio, which is difficult for me since shifting from volleyball/softball to powerlifting, into my weekly workouts. I’ve become a big fan of HIIT and I’ve learned that it’s not about being perfect, about hitting every rep and taking only a few breaks; it’s about trying your hardest and enjoying the sweat. It’s also about getting solid nutrition, before and after all the sweat. (If you couldn’t tell by the links, I’m a fan of Healthline.)

Heart-healthy Eating

I’m no nutritionist. So I talk to people (and read articles by) people who are. I also trust in the foods of my people, Italians who are known for their heart-healthy long-life diets (think the ‘Mediterranean Diet’). Ironic, isn’t it, since my Italian-American family has that heart disease problem?

I don’t focus on what foods are “bad for me”; instead, I focus on what foods are GOOD for me and my heart. This protects not only my cardiovascular health but also my mental health. Foods that I love to eat that help support healthy heart function are:

  • Flaxseed
  • Extra virgin olive oil (see images above)
  • Fish (especially salmon)
  • Beans
  • Whole wheat replacements for pastas, breads, bagels, English muffins
  • Blackberries
  • Spinach
  • Red wine (not a food, but it counts and god is it the best)
  • Dried prunes (for fiber)
  • Oats (I’m a huge fan of morning oatmeal made fresh and overnight oats)
  • Walnuts (I put them in that aforementioned oatmeal for a good crunch)

Some articles on heart-healthy eating, because again I’m no nutritionist:

12 Heart-Healthy Foods to Work into your Diet

15 Incredibly Heart-Healthy Foods

Cooking to Lower Cholesterol

The Skinny on Fats

I’m just starting on this new approach to my own health, but already I’m seeing benefits. It’s about subtle changes in the way I think about myself and my body and the relationship between the two. It’s about knowing myself and wanting my own joy, not a joy defined by others or purely by appearances. ✿


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