5 Ways to Shape Up Your Heart

Written by Kasia Wind

Let’s be real: when you’re sweating in the gym, between sets of presses and rows, you’re likely not thinking about your heart health. Your mind wanders between checking in on your form, how much you’re loving that new tune on your playlist, and what you’re going to eat later (tacos, probably).

It’s not that you don’t care about having a healthy, blood-pumping, bulletproof beatbox. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. As a STRONG woman, you know that your regular exercise habits already help to keep your most important fit bit in great shape, and the latest medical science agrees.

In two separate studies published at the end of 2016 in the journals Mayo Clinic Proceedings and Circulation, completely unrelated teams of researchers came to the exact same conclusion: your fitness levels alone can help predict your long-term risk of premature death from heart disease, even when other risk factors, such as blood pressure, smoking, and consumption of margaritas are taken out of the equation (according to the first study).

So here’s where you really need to pay attention: both studies concluded that fitness levels should be used clinically by doctors to screen patients for risk of heart disease, in a similar fashion to more traditional risk factors, like smoking and diet.

That’s. Great. News. Especially for women who hit the gym on the regular. But it doesn’t mean you’re off the hook, placing an abstract check-in-the-box next to “heart health” on your To-Do list, and sending it off to Never-Think-About-Again Land, where things like your high school haircut live.

TO KEEP YOUR HEART STRONG, FOLLOW THESE TIPS:

1) Talk to Your Doctor—Even if You’re Fit!

“People who are active have a better [heart health] risk profile than people who are not,” says Pamela Ouyang, MD, Director of the Johns Hopkins Women’s Cardiovascular Center in Baltimore. But there are still a number of questions that the new studies haven’t answered, she says, like identifying the most reliable way of measuring a patient’s fitness. While the study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings used an online calculator to assign patients an “estimated fitness number” based on their perceived VO2 Max (the body’s ability to transport oxygen during exercise), there’s currently no “gold standard” screening test to estimate cardiorespiratory fitness for all ages and ethnic groups that would take into account your average level, frequency, and intensity of exercise, and how exactly that impacts your risk of having a cardiovascular event over time, says Ouyang. Keeping your doctor up to speed on your workouts and any changes to how you feel or perform can help your MD evaluate whether (s)he has any concerns.

2) Crank Up the Spice Girls

New research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology shows that women are 38 percent less likely to die from heart disease over the long-term if they tend to think optimistically. To boost positive thinking about the future, try a little nostalgia. Researchers from the University of Southampton in the UK recently published a paper citing several studies that showed a link between thinking back to a nostalgic event and happy thoughts, including one where subjects who listened to a nostalgic song reported higher levels of optimism, versus those who listened to a control song. A little “Wannabe” anyone?

3) Think Twice About Supplements

If your quest for healthy living has you reaching for natural medications and nutritional supplements, chat with your doctor before emptying the shelves at your local drug store. “Over-the-counter medications that claim to improve heart health have never been studied or proven,” says Ouyang. “Just because it’s natural, it’s not necessarily safe.” In addition, make sure that your MD is aware of any vitamins or supplements you’re taking, as some may not be necessary, and others may have dangerous interactions. Check in about calcium supplements, specifically, which have been the topic of much controversy lately, with some studies linking their use to increased rates of cardiovascular disease or death. While more research is necessary to make a definitive recommendation, the current data shows that dietary calcium is not harmful to heart health, so unless you have a health condition that requires additional calcium, eat up before popping a pill.

4) Consider Your Gynecologic Health

Chances are that you’re already aware of the way your dental health impacts your heart disease risk. But did you know that your below-the-belt parts could also be important? Women with endometriosis, the abnormal growth of uterine tissue outside the uterus, may be 60 percent more likely to develop heart disease than women who don’t have the disorder, according to a 2016 study published in Circulation. If you suspect endometriosis, or have been diagnosed, talk to your doctor about treatment options, and other factors that could help you boost your heart health.

5) Look at the Big Picture

“It’s not impossible to have high blood pressure, even if you exercise,” says Ouyang, adding that sometimes, active women may turn a blind eye to other cardiovascular risk factors, since they’re doing so much right. “Even if you are fit and strong, there are certain risk factors that are important to know,” she says. Ouyang advises women to take their doctors up on a quick blood pressure check the next time they go into the office, and having a cholesterol panel (blood test) performed approximately every five years, depending on your underlying heart risk.

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