A "healthy heart" is something you’ve probably heard many times, but have you ever really thought about what it means for you (yes you!) and your heart? Of course everyone wants to have a healthy heart, since the heart is essential to breathing, moving, and… well, living. I’ve observed, however, that a lot of people don’t worry about it until something bad happens.
Women in particular may ignore heart health because they don’t realize heart disease is the leading cause of death in women in the United States, with the rates increasing in postmenopausal women.1 Yikes ladies! We need to do something about this.
Personally, I think women may not think about heart health because they are often busy taking care of others, think it’s mostly a man’s problem , or figure they can just go vegan whenever that bad lab report pops up. I certainly get it!
As one of these women, caring for others and having observed it mostly in men in my personal world, I’m thinking about a lot of other things that seem a lot more important right now. The task can seem daunting, especially for busy women who have limited time and resources to prepare "heart healthy" meals or spare extra time for exercise.
With those odds though, adopting habits that help protect our hearts is vital to a healthy lifestyle and thriving in our crazy lives! There is hope for women who feel overwhelmed by trying to make so many lifestyle changes. Here are 3 fun ways to experience the power of positivity on heart health without working all that hard. You might even enjoy doing them! (Gasp!)
The Power of Positivity
If you’re a glass half full kind of gal, I’ve got great news for you! New research that shows that you’re less likely to die from heart disease if you have a positive outlook.2 This positivity effect seems to work even after a cardiac event has already happened, as those with a positive outlook are more likely to not suffer additional events and are less likely to contract infections.3,4,5
This sounds wonderful, positivity and all, but what does that really mean? People tend to know if they are a positive person or not, but if you want to dig into the why’s behind that, I highly encourage you to learn about the Enneagram and discover your dominant number. This is a very helpful tool for learning why you behave in a negative or positive way to certain situations.
Beyond learning about the Enneagram, here are some ways to cultivate positivity in your life, which don’t forget, contributes to a healthy heart:
#1 - Practice Gratitude
One way that people often get stuck in negative thoughts is by not acknowledging the good things happening in their life, even if it doesn’t seem like there is much to celebrate.6 (Hello Quarantine 2020!) According to Harvard Health, gratitude is associated with stronger feelings of happiness, which can lead to a much more positive outlook on life.
Gratitude is an elusive action that can be tricky to nail down for you. A great way to begin to cultivate gratitude in your everyday life is by keeping a gratitude journal, which I'll discuss more in a minute. Other simple ideas are writing thank you notes, filling a gratitude jar, saying things you're thankful for around the dinner table, or taking a moment to be thankful for one thing about a person you love (especially when you are angry or upset at them).6 Though these do make great Thanksgiving dinner activities, gratitude isn't just for a certain time of the year! It's a great idea for adults and kids of all ages to practice regularly.
I've created a gratitude journal worksheet that you can find HERE. Gratitude journaling can be done many different ways. You could simply make a list of things you're grateful for each day or at the end of each week. It could also look like writing out the names of the people in your life and listing attributes about them that you are grateful for. It is the perfect activity to do especially when you find yourself in a season of negativity or pessimism. Hopefully the gratitude activity I created is helpful to you as you take the first step toward practicing gratitude.
Practicing gratitude is not just for you, but for every family member. For younger kids this might be as simple as providing them a coloring worksheet with a quote or scripture about thankfulness. A great "thankful activity" for young children would be to turn it into a game by giving them a letter of the alphabet and seeing how many different things they can think of to be grateful for that begin with that letter. You can also encourage an attitude of gratitude in younger kids by regularly expressing feelings of gratitude to them and to others.
For older kids, the best time to discuss the benefits of gratitude might be at the dinner table. Older children are often more receptive to discussions while they are doing something else. So the next time you are at the dinner table or preparing dinner together, share with them about your daily gratitude practice. Share how it feels to have a heart of gratitude, what it does for your mental health, and how it improves people's daily lives.
#2 - Make Time for Quality Time
Another way that one can develop a more positive outlook on life is by spending quality time with others.7 While this is difficult at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, strong relationships improve not only your positive emotions, but can strengthen your immune system as well!
Friendships often get neglected in the busyness of life for very understandable reasons. It is so vital (literally) to make some space for your friends that give you life. It doesn’t need to be a lot of time or all the time, but some time. I like to prompt my clients to think about who they would like to be at their 90th birthday party, celebrating their life. Strong relationships that last through the years do take effort and can’t be fully neglected. This would also be the perfect time to express gratitude for their friendship and how they have brought you greater happiness in life.
Some creative ways to build in social time with friends even with a pandemic are by planning a Zoom Hangout with a theme (I had a mini high school reunion with my best friends and we all brought an “artifact” from high school), start a virtual book club, or watch a show or movie together while Facetiming. Take advantage of apps like Voxer, Marco Polo and Snap Chat that make messaging back and forth very easy.
#3 - Move in a Fun Way
One final way to build a more positive outlook on life is to exercise more often!3 Exercise releases endorphins, which are basically the hormone designed for helping you experience happiness.8 In the famous words of Elle Woods, “Exercise gives you endorphins, endorphins make you happy.”
Exercising may sound like a daunting task or a total drag, but it simply means doing any activity that raises your heart rate, makes you breathe a little harder, and moves your body, even if it’s just a little bit.8 Exercise also doesn’t always have to be movement that you hate; if you don’t like running, girl, don’t run!
One way you can discover your fun way to exercise is through a simple activity. Step into an area of your home where no one can see you. Close your eyes and move your body in a way that feels enjoyable, fun, silly or freeing. Whatever comes to mind, don't sensor it and just let it come out. When you open your eyes you'll probably notice yourself smiling. Boom! You've found one way to move that you enjoy. Now replicate that in your day by inserting microbursts of that fun movement.
Walking, riding your bike, going to a dance class, swimming, practicing yoga, participating in group sports, gardening/yard work, dog walking or lifting weights for 30 minutes a day are all excellent ways to get your movement in for the day. Thanks to COVID there are now so many options for guided virtual workouts. My favorites are the Nike Training App and The Yoga Collective app.
If it’s hard finding time in the day to exercise, build it into your normal schedule by setting a timer for every 45 or 60 minutes and taking a brisk walk around the office or house or simply walking in place! For a fun approach, play your favorite song and dance. Don’t worry who’s watching, especially if you are at home.
There are so many ways to get your heart pumping using movement that is enjoyable for you; just keep trying different movements until you find the one that’s right for you! Bring those positive attitudes cultivated from your gratitude activities with you into your movement as well! Be grateful for the great things your body is capable of and for the different ways you are able to move.
What About Diet and Heart Health?
Since I am a RD, I can't avoid touching on diet and heart health. If you're reading this, I assume you probably care about doing things that improve your heart health and reduce your risk for heart disease. What you eat matters, but it can also be confusing.
When it comes down to it, incorporating heart healthy foods into your diet will never steer you in the wrong direction.9 “Overhauling” your whole diet, however, is not necessary and small, simple actions can have a big impact. Here are some doable ways to incorporate more heart healthy foods into your life:9,10
- Increase fiber intake by 10-15 g more per day. This can be done by adding a little bit more of the fruits and vegetables you already enjoy! For example, ¼ cup of raspberries have 4 grams of fiber, 1 medium banana has 3 grams of fiber, 1 cup of broccoli has 5 g of fiber, and 1 handful (ounce) of almonds has 3.5 grams of fiber.11 All of these together equal about 13.5 grams of fiber!
- Drink green tea every day, hot or iced (my favorite way to drink it is iced and mixed with a splash of lemonade!)12
- Reduce intake of added sugars, by finding lower sugar options of foods you already eat, like swapping out milk chocolate for dark chocolate squares, or trying flavored sparkling water
- Adding in one serving of nuts will be helpful for your heart as well! Peanuts contain a lot of healthy fats, which are excellent for your heart. They also pack a punch of heart-healthy nutrients such as vitamin E, niacin, folate, and manganese!13 Walnuts are another excellent food to benefit the heart! They are full of omega-3 fatty acids, another type of healthy fat.14 These fatty acids have been shown to help regulate blood pressure, control LDL cholesterol levels, and reduce excessive clotting of blood, which is a risk factor for stroke. Other nuts that have heart healthy benefits are almonds and cashews.15,16 So grab a handful of mixed nuts if you’re on the go and make your heart happy!
- Pay attention to what you are eating and how your body responds instead of just scarfing down food. This is mindful eating and simply takes practices to better recognize how much food your body actually needs. Mindfulness takes practice and is cultivated over time. Start by checking in before you start eating and ask yourself how hungry you are. Then check in with yourself when you have a few bites left on your plate and assess how full you are.
Find the Joy
Remember, eating for heart health does not have to be a total drag or full of foods that do not bring you joy. Easy swaps or even adding more of certain foods is all it takes nutritionally to keep your heart pumping strong. Check out my collection of Make Healthy Easy Recipes to give you some new ideas.
It’s so freeing to know that something as simple and life-giving as having a more positive outlook on life is enough to make you and your heart healthier. Fill your daily life with the activities, people, and foods that bring you the most joy and reap the benefits of happiness! I hope you enjoy the free printable gratitude journal prompts as well! Be sure to tag me if you share how you are using the free printables on social media.
Ladies, keep on smiling and experience the power of positivity on heart health. It just might save your life.
This article was written by Mary Vanderheyden, a dietetic intern at the University of North Florida, and edited it by Jenna Braddock, RD. Mary is Georgia native who enjoys nutrition counseling and wants people to live their highest quality of life.
- Women and Heart Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/women.htm. Published January 31, 2020. Accessed September 29, 2020.
- Can Positive Thinking Prevent a Heart Attack? Cleveland HeartLab, Inc. https://www.clevelandheartlab.com/blog/can-positive-thinking-prevent-a-heart-attack/. Published November 4, 2019. Accessed September 29, 2020.
- How to Prevent Heart Disease After Menopause. www.goredforwomen.org. https://www.goredforwomen.org/en/about-heart-disease-in-women/preventing-cardiovascular-disease/how-to-prevent-heart-disease-after-menopause. Accessed September 29, 2020.
- Kubzansky LD, Huffman JC, Boehm JK, et al. Positive Psychological Well-Being and Cardiovascular Disease: JACC Health Promotion Series. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2018;72(12):1382-1396. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2018.07.042
- Positive Patients Exercise Live Longer. www.goredforwomen.org. https://www.goredforwomen.org/en/about-heart-disease-in-women/latest-research/positive-patients-exercise-live-longer. Accessed September 29, 2020.
- Publishing HH. Giving thanks can make you happier. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier. Accessed September 29, 2020.
- Do Social Ties Affect Our Health? National Institutes of Health. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2017/02/do-social-ties-affect-our-health. Published September 8, 2017. Accessed September 29, 2020.
- Dfarhud D, Malmir M, Khanahmadi M. Happiness & Health: The Biological Factors- Systematic Review Article. Iran J Public Health. 2014;43(11):1468-1477.
- The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations. www.heart.org. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/aha-diet-and-lifestyle-recommendations. Published August 2017. Accessed September 29, 2020.
- 8 steps to a heart-healthy diet. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-healthy-diet/art-20047702. Published January 9, 2019. Accessed September 29, 2020.
- How much fiber is found in common foods? Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/high-fiber-foods/art-20050948. Published November 17, 2018. Accessed October 1, 2020.
- Miller PE, Zhao D, Frazier-Wood AC, et al. Associations of Coffee, Tea, and Caffeine Intake with Coronary Artery Calcification and Cardiovascular Events. Am J Med. 2017;130(2):188-197.e5. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2016.08.038
- Peanuts. The World's Healthiest Foods. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=101. Published 2020. Accessed September 29, 2020.
- Walnuts. The World's Healthiest Foods. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=99. Published 2020. Accessed September 29, 2020.
- Almonds. The World's Healthiest Foods. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=20. Published 2020. Accessed September 29, 2020.
- Cashews. The World's Healthiest Foods. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=98. Published 2020. Accessed September 29, 2020.