February is American Heart Month and while I always enjoy promoting heart health, especially heart health for the endurance athlete, this month always reminds me of my time working in Cardiac Rehabilitation and Open Heart Surgery. I guess you can say that heart health has a special place in my heart. (pun intended 🙂 )
Athletes are generally healthy, but we aren’t resistant to cardiovascular issues. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just because you can run a race or do a triathlon, you’re perfectly healthy. Unfortunately, that kind of thinking can be very dangerous to your health and your life.
As an Exercise Physiologist, I’ve had the pleasure of working in Cardiac Rehab. I enjoyed monitoring EKGs but I especially loved teaching my patients how to remain healthy and how they could start and maintain an exercise routine. They were a joy to teach and I always enjoyed guiding them through their workout routines.
One year, I even worked in open heart surgery as a Surgical Technologist (That’s me in the chocolate truffle scrub hat!).
The pace was fast and the experience was like no other. I considered my red clogs to be camouflage wear for the OR. Everyday consisted of preparing for surgery, scrubbing in, and anticipating the surgeon’s next move. But as interesting as a job as that was, my heart just wasn’t in it. (yeah, that’s right, another pun 🙂 ) I really preferred my patients conscious where I could guide them in their recovery and lifestyle changes.
The body is a complicated thing. Through my education and from my years working in healthcare, I’ve learned that no one thing in the body works in isolation from anything else. Unhealthy diets, genetics, and other risk factors all play a role in the outcome of what may lie ahead. Too much of one thing and too little of another will have an effect on your health.
Hypertension, Dyslipidemia, Dysrhythmias, Myocardial Infarctions… Athletes are not immune to any of these conditions. I truly believe that exercise is medicine. And the impact of both exercise and nutrition is huge on our health. But while it’s great that we workout and prepare for our races, we also have to consider our entire lifestyle. We need to train smart so that exercise doesn’t negatively impact our health. We need to eat healthy and not rely on so much processed and unhealthy food. We need to take care of our emotional health and not let stress take over.
I know change is difficult. It’s easy to avoid what we should be doing for better health if there is no immediate threat. But trust me, I’ve seen the difficulties my patients have gone through with recovering from major surgery. I’ve heard them when they told me they wished they’d done things differently in the past. Don’t wait until it’s too late and your lying in an operating room getting your chest cracked open. Take care of your heart, take care of yourself before you’re forced to make drastic changes.
While there are certain factors that are out of our control, such as genetics, there are many factors that you do have control over. Here are some ways to stay healthy and protect your heart:
- Exercise regularly & consistently
- Follow well structured training
- Eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables.
- Choose quality foods and ingredients, avoid overly processed foods and fast food.
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Get regular check ups
- Know your health stats (including your blood pressure numbers)
- Reduce and manage stress
- Get enough quality sleep
- Don’t ignore seemingly minor symptoms. If something feels “off” or doesn’t feel right, call your doctor