Are you preparing for winter? Perhaps you're retrieving heavy coats from their summer slumber, getting a check-up for your home's furnace, and stocking up on road salt for snowy days. You might also add your health to the list of items to be "winterized," especially your heart, which faces increased risks during the winter. In addition to the basics — eating a healthy diet, doing moderate-intensity exercise (such as brisk walking) for at least 150 minutes per week, and getting enough sleep (seven to nine hours per night) — take the following steps to protect your heart.
Stay up-to-date on vaccinations
Make sure you get this year's influenza (flu) shot and any recommended COVID-19 vaccinations or boosters. Flu and COVID surge in the winter, and both can harm your heart. "You can develop cardiovascular problems after COVID, even if you don't have any heart disease risk factors," says Dr. Deepak Bhatt, a cardiologist and editor in chief of the Harvard Heart Letter. "And while the flu increases your risk for a heart attack, our research has shown that getting a flu shot is associated with significantly reduced heart attack risks — as much as 45%."
Check your medicine cabinet
Lots of people have cold and flu remedies on hand for the winter, but these often contain ingredients that pose heart risks. Common culprits include decongestants (such as phenylephrine and pseudoephedrine) and cough suppressants (such as dextromethorphan), which can raise your heart rate and blood pressure. "Stay away from cold remedies containing decongestants if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or a history of stroke," Dr. Bhatt advises.
Cold remedies may also contain ibuprofen (the ingredient in the pain relievers Advil and Motrin) to reduce fever or relieve aches and pains. Ibuprofen is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), which may increase the risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Make an exercise plan
Aerobic exercise — the kind that works your heart and lungs — is crucial for heart health, a healthy immune system, and much more. But it's easy to stop exercising when the weather turns cold.
Figure out now where you'll exercise indoors this winter and which types of exercise you'll do. Perhaps you'd like to work out at home, following an online exercise video. YouTube is a rich source of free exercise videos. Look for one geared toward people in your age group. Other options for exercising indoors include working out at a gym, walking indoors at a local mall, or taking classes at a YMCA.
Prepare for snow removal
Shoveling snow or pushing a heavy snow blower makes your heart work overtime, especially in cold weather (which narrows blood vessels). It also increases risk of a heart attack, particularly if you are deconditioned from infrequent physical activity.
Avoid the risk by asking friends, family, or neighbors if they might be available to help you shovel snow this winter, or by hiring a snow removal company if finances allow (call now, since they book up quickly).
If you want to shovel snow on your own, remember that the activity requires the same precautions as a strenuous workout, such as preparing the heart and muscles with a warm-up, staying hydrated, going slowly, and stopping if you feel dizzy or you're out of breath.
Start managing stress
Get into a regular practice of managing stress now, before the winter holidays arrive with their many pressures. Stress triggers the body's fight-or-flight response, which sends stress hormones throughout the body and makes the heart beat faster, breath quicken, and muscles tense. It's not harmful if it's temporary, but chronic stress contributes to clogged arteries and high blood pressure and can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Manage stress by practicing yoga, tai chi, meditation, or deep breathing exercises, and by getting enough sleep and exercising.
Come up with winter eating and drinking strategies
The winter brings many opportunities to go off a healthy diet or drink too much alcohol, and both affect the heart. Eating lots of food that's fatty, salty, sugary, or high-calorie may add pounds or increase your blood sugar or cholesterol levels, which can raise cardiovascular disease risk. Drinking too much alcohol can cause a temporary or even permanent irregular heartbeat condition called atrial fibrillation.
Plan now to avoid overindulging. Enjoy holiday or comfort foods only occasionally, in small portions. Limit alcohol to no more than one drink per day, if your doctor says it's okay. Where can you find the resolve to stick to the rules? Think of the harms you risk if you don't. "It often takes a heart attack before people get serious about heart health," Dr. Bhatt says. "It's much better to be proactive than reactive."
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