Healthy Focus

Small Steps=Big Impact on Heart Health

Your heart will pump more than 1 million barrels of blood during your lifetime. But what do you do for your heart?

If you’re like most people, there are lots of small changes you can make to treat your heart more kindly. Although some heart disease risk factors like family history can’t be controlled, many can be–and without much effort if you know your body and what to do for it.

Food for thought

David Gibson, MD
Cardiologist, Saint Thomas Heart

Dr. David Gibson, cardiologist at Saint Thomas Heart, typically sees patients after they have experienced cardiac symptoms or, in some cases, have already had a heart attack or other cardiac event.

“Heart disease is a chronic disease that does not just happen one time, and that’s why changes are necessary,” says Dr. Gibson. “If people have not done it on their own, we talk about the most important small steps.”

Often one of those steps is a diet overhaul, a task that can be intimidating if someone quickly tries to shift from a fast-food habit to an all-organic way of eating, for example.

“If someone eats breakfast at McDonald’s and lunch at Burger King every day, we don’t say, ‘Stop eating fast food,’” he says. “We suggest, ‘Decrease it to once a week.’ We recommend eating an apple instead of chips with lunch.”

Dr. Gibson also recommends such easy diet changes as switching from regular soda to diet soda or water, replacing butter with olive oil, and using a smaller plate for meals, since smaller plates can help you focus on smaller portion sizes.

Get moving

Becoming—or staying—active is crucial to long-term heart health too. A regular exercise program helps to decrease your resting heart rate and boost good cholesterol, both factors that help you live longer.

Experts don’t recommend that coach potatoes jump up and start running marathons. But small changes in exercise, akin to ordering that apple instead of chips, can have a big impact on cardiac wellness. For every hour you spend walking, according to the American Heart Association, you can increase your life expectancy by two hours.

The AHA recommends 30 minutes of exercise a day, and the group specifically recommends starting with walking because it’s easy to do, inexpensive and available everywhere with no gear required. For simple ways to add walking to your everyday routine, try taking the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator, mowing your own lawn and working in the garden rather than hiring a service, and even getting up to do a few laps around the living room while watching TV.

Sleep on it

Making sure you get a good night’s sleep (seven to nine hours per night) is another small step with big payoffs for heart health, says Dr. Gibson.

In fact, a study in the Netherlands, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, suggests that seven or more hours of sleep nightly may actually help increase the benefits of adopting other heart-healthy behaviors such as eating a better diet and exercising regularly.

“Heart disease is preventable, but it does get worse as time goes on if you don’t do anything to stop it,” adds Dr. Gibson.

Myth vs. fact: Heart disease misconceptions

As easy as it is to make small changes for a big impact on your heart health, experts say one of the challenges is common misconceptions about heart disease. Here are three myths that doctors want to bust about heart disease.

Myth:“I don’t have to worry because I’m still young. Isn’t heart disease for old people?”

Fact:Obesity, type 2 diabetes and other heart health risk factors are becoming more common in younger people. And if you use birth control pills or smoke, you need to be even more aware of your heart health.

Myth:“Heart attacks happen mostly to men.”

Fact:Heart disease actually kills more women than men, and more than all types of cancer combined. One in three American women dies from heart disease every year.

Myth:“I’ll know if I’m having heart problems because I’ll feel it in my chest.”

Fact:Many people, particularly women, have heart attack symptoms that are much less obvious, such as shortness of breath or nausea.

Don’t Let Injuries Sideline Your Workouts

If you’ve been scared off from trying new fitness activities by your friends’ tales of woe about post-workout pain and soreness, get that exercise gear back out of the closet.

The key to expanding—or beginning—an exercise program or sports activities without hurting yourself is knowing how much and what to do. Many sports injuries can be prevented with proper training and preparation, and those that do occur can be minimized with prompt and appropriate treatment.

Common problems

A sports injury refers to any injury caused by repetitive use of a body part. Most commonly, sports injuries affect the body’s major joints. Runners tend to experience injuries in their knees, hips and ankles, while women who engage in upper-body activities such as tennis and golf see more injuries to elbows and shoulders.

Debbie Jelks
Director of Rehab Services at Henry County Medical Center

“Tendinitis is probably the most common type of sports injury,” says Debbie Jelks, Director of Rehab Services at Henry County Medical Center. “In particular, we see a lot of cases of inflammation in the patellar tendon [which connects the kneecap to the shinbone] and tendons in the inside of the foot.”

As you get older, you’re more likely to experience knee problems as well. The knee is a large, weight-bearing hinge joint that has less range of motion than a socket joint, such as the hip or shoulder.

“It’s related to the kneecap and how it fits into the groove in the leg bone,” says Jelks. “Weight, conditioning and muscle strength all play into injury risk.”

In addition, women are more prone to knee problems due to the width of their pelvic girdle relative to men. Wider hips increase the angle of the hips to the knees, altering how weight is distributed on the knees and leaving them more vulnerable.

An ounce of prevention

As with many other aspects of life, preventing an injury is preferable to treating an injury.

“Remember the ‘FITT’ acronym, which stands for ‘frequency, intensity, type and time,’” says Jelks. “Monitor how often you engage in an activity, how intense it is, what type of activity you’re doing and how long you do it.”

Avoid overtraining by easing into a new exercise program. “Work into it gradually,” says Jelks. “Start out doing 15-minute sessions one week, and then maybe ramp up to 20 minutes the next week, and so on. The big problem is doing too much too soon. If you aren’t active and try to jump right into a 75-minute aerobics session, you’re going to get into trouble with injuries.”

And forget about being a weekend warrior, says Jelks.

“Don’t try to cram all your physical activity into the weekend,” says Jelks. “Get a moderate amount of cardio work and weight training in over the course of the week. Get your body used to being active.”

Treatment tactics

Despite all the precautions in the world, sports injuries can still happen. However, most overuse injuries are minor and easily treatable.

“Minor injuries such as strains and sprains can be treated with over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, if you don’t have a medical condition that prevents you from taking them,” says Jelks. “Ice packs, applied several times a day, can also help keep the swelling down.”

Some sports injuries, however, will require medical attention. It might be time to see your doctor if an injury is painful enough to inhibit your daily activities, if there is numbness in the affected area or if the pain doesn’t go away within several days.

“Severity and duration of pain are always indicators of a more severe injury,” says Jelks. “Swelling, a loss of feeling and decreased range of motion are also indicators that you might need a doctor to look at it.”

Above all, be patient if your body doesn’t immediately respond to a new activity the way you were hoping. As you age, getting into shape and recovering from injuries simply takes longer. But the rewards are well worth it in terms of your personal health and wellness.

“Exercise is extremely important to overall health,” says Jelks. “It’s just a matter of being smart about it. You have to take common sense steps to prevent injuries, and if you do get hurt, know when it’s time to see your doctor.”

Sports injury warning signs

Check in with your physician if you’re experiencing:

• pain that inhibits your daily activities or doesn’t go away within a few days
• numbness in the affected area
• substantial swelling
• loss of feeling
• decreased range of motion

Guilt-Free Popovers

Using egg whites and fat-free milk make this favorite comfort food guilt-free.


1 cup fat-free milk
1 cup all-purpose (plain) flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 egg whites


Preheat the oven to 425 F. Generously coat 6 large metal or glass muffin molds with cooking spray. Heat the muffin molds in the oven for 2 minutes.

In a large bowl, add the milk, flour, salt, and egg whites. Using an electric mixer, beat until smooth. Fill the heated muffin molds 2/3 full. Bake in the top part of the oven until golden brown and puffy, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately.

Dietitians Tip: To make cheese popovers, add 1 tablespoon batter to the bottom of each cup. Top with 1 teaspoon Parmesan cheese and fill the cups 2/3 full with remaining batter. The Parmesan cheese adds 7 calories, a trace amount of fat and cholesterol, and 25 milligrams of sodium to each popover.