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FirstHealth of the Carolinas
Diet,exercise and the cardiovascular system By Leigh Ann McDonald

You’ve heard it a million times before, but it never hurts to hear it a million and one: Diet and exercise matter in the fight against cardiovascular disease.

Experts recommend making healthy changes now in either area—but most preferably in both.

“Start with small changes,” says Kari Garbark, program manager at the FirstHealth Center for Health & Fitness–Pinehurst. “Some may find it easier to focus on nutrition changes first, while others may be willing to start by adding exercise. Some may be able to make small changes in both areas as a transition into a healthier lifestyle.”

A strong core diet
To keep your heart healthy, start with a good core diet, says Kathy Hefner, R.D., LDN, a nutritionist/health educator for the FirstHealth Centers for Health & Fitness.

“Changing your diet helps reduce circulating fats in your blood, which can help reduce plaque formation,” says Hefner. “It can also impact blood pressure and blood sugars, and reduce existing high cholesterol.”

A good core diet involves:

  • Choosing whole grains
  • Choosing low-fat dairy (1 percent or less for milk or yogurt)
  • Eating nuts and beans
  • Reducing the amount of excess calories from sugar
  • Choosing good, heart-healthy fats
  • Eliminating trans fats
  • Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables

“You should eat seven to nine servings (1/2 cup) of fruits and vegetables a day,” Hefner says. “More matters, and choosing a variety of colors—green, red, yellow/orange, blue/purple and white/tan—helps provide a good balance of nutrients.”

Get moving, too
With regards to heart disease, it’s better to be fit— even if you’re overweight—than to be skinny and sedentary, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Researchers studied about 1,000 women and found that ideally, of course, it is best to be at an optimal weight and active,” says Garbark. “Second best is to be a little overweight and active. The third is to be optimal weight and inactive, and the worst case was being both overweight and inactive.”

So how does exercise help prevent cardiovascular disease? “Your heart is a muscle and needs to be exercised just like your other muscles,” Garbark says.

Regular physical activity increases blood flow to your heart and strengthens your heart’s contractions so it pumps blood with less effort. Immediate benefits include improved mood due to the release of endorphins, increased energy level and better sleep patterns—all of which help control the stress that could play a role in cardiovascular disease.

“Long-term, exercise decreases blood pressure, decreases cholesterol, increases cardiovascular endurance and decreases the risk for heart disease among its many other benefits,” Garbark says.

American College of Sports Medicine guidelines recommend getting 30 to 60 minutes of moderately intense physical activity most days of the week. This means keeping your heart rate elevated at an appropriate level for an extended time.

But don’t get discouraged if you can’t immediately start getting that much exercise.

“A great place to begin would be to add more physical activity to our everyday lives,” Garbark says. “We’ve become a sedentary population and have to make conscious decisions to find ways to become more active. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, park far away from the door in the parking lot, take a daily walk or bike ride, set up lunch dates for a walk instead of a restaurant.”

How to get started
People are naturally resistant to change. “Altering your lifestyle to include new foods and exercise can be difficult,” Garbark says. “How best to get started is very individually based and depends on your health status, personality and experience.”

Work with certified professionals for guidance and to design an exercise and nutrition program that will best suit you and the results you desire. “Whatever approach you take, it eventually has to be a well-rounded approach including both proper nutrition and regular exercise,” Garbark says. “There’s just no getting around it.”

For more information on the FirstHealth Center for Health & Fitness nearest you and the diet and exercise programs they provide, call (800) 213-3284 toll-free.