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Health & Exercise Forum

National Heart Month: 7 Simple Steps to a Healthier Heart!

Feb 10, 2014

SaraBashaw White Coat Formal Head ShotGuest Columnist: Sarah Bashaw, 3rd Year Medical Student The Commonwealth Medical College

Happy American Heart Month! It is no accident that Heart Month is celebrated in the same month as Valentine’s Day. However, this celebration of the heart is much deeper than chocolate and roses. To truly love someone, you must first love yourself and taking care of your heart is a good place to start.

Of the many wonders of the body I have learned about at The Commonwealth Medical College (TCMC) over the past three years, the small organ about the size of a fist that sits just underneath your ribs on the left side of the chest has captured my heart. Before birth, your heart has been beating away, usually without you even knowing it. It does not need to be told what to do, it speeds up and slows down to allow you to sleep or to climb a flight of stairs, and it doesn’t tire out the same way that your other muscles do. So, with all my heart, I hope that I can give you a few easy and helpful tips to keep yours happy and healthy, not just this month but for years to come.

The American Heart Association promotes seven key health factors that, when combined, contribute the most to your heart health – it’s called “Life’s Simple 7’s.” You should tailor this list to your personal health and life style and focus on those aspects that are most applicable to you.

Life’s Simple 7’s:

  1. Lose weight/maintain a healthy weight
  2. Eat better
  3. Get active
  4. Manage blood pressure
  5. Reduce blood sugar
  6. Control cholesterol
  7. Stop smoking

Weight: Doctors and other health care professionals use a body mass index, or BMI, to determine a healthy weight for you. There are several online calculators or ones for your phone where you can put in your height and weight to calculate your BMI. If your BMI is higher than it should be (a healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9), it is suggested that you lose weight. Extra body fat affects your heart health by increasing your cholesterol and your potential for other health issues such as heart attacks or strokes.

Eat Well/Be Active: Make healthy choices. Instead of a hamburger, next time try a turkey burger. Swap your soda for seltzer water. Instead of taking the elevator, use the stairs.  For most people, it is the culmination of multiple small unhealthy choices that lead to weight gain, so don’t forget that overtime; many small healthy choices can cause weight loss too.

Blood Pressure: The Joint National Commission recently released new guidelines on hypertension. It is recommended that patients under the age of 60 with blood pressure above 140/90 or over the age of 60 with a blood pressure over 150/90 be treated with medications for hypertension. While only your doctor can determine if you should be placed on medication, and which medication is best for you, there are things that you can do yourself to help reduce your blood pressure: lose weight, exercise at least 30 minutes most days of the week, reduce the salt in your diet, and reduce the amount of alcohol you drink. High blood pressure makes your heart work harder with each beat. Like other muscles in your body, the harder you heart has to work, the thicker your heart muscle becomes. Unlike your biceps, increasing the thickness of your heart muscle doesn’t make you more toned, but instead it reduces the volume of blood that can enter the chambers of your heart. Over time this can cause problems for both your heart and lungs, which can lead to heart failure.

Blood Sugar: Unless you heading out the door for a 10 mile run, when you eat glucose, or sugar, your body cannot use it as a fuel source immediately. As sugar enters your bloodstream, it is necessary for your body to make insulin to bind to the glucose or it will be unable to deliver the glucose to your cells. When you have high blood sugar, it means that your body has not produced enough insulin to bind with the sugar in your blood (this leads to high blood sugar) and therefore it cannot deliver it to your cells for energy. Over time, your body’s cells can starve if there is not enough insulin to bind to the glucose and make it useable for your body. The organs that are most easily affected by the inefficient use glucose or high blood sugar are your eyes, kidneys, nerves, small blood vessels and heart. In fact, heart disease and stroke are the number one cause of death among people with type 2 diabetes. If you have high blood sugar or diabetes, talk to your doctor about getting control over your blood sugar. The best thing you can do is to lose weight and eat healthy. Try a snacking on carrots instead of a piece of candy, and as always, stay active.

Control Cholesterol: Cholesterol is a sticky substance that can build up in your blood vessels. When your body has more cholesterol than it can handle, it can cause your blood vessels to narrow (atherosclerosis). It may also lead to small pieces, called plaques, to break off and cut off blood to vital organs such as your heart or brain. You may have heard of “good” and “bad” cholesterol. “Good” cholesterol is high density lipoprotein or HDL and it helps to keep the “bad” cholesterol from sticking to your blood vessels. “Bad” cholesterol is low density lipoprotein or LDL and it is the part of cholesterol that makes cholesterol sticky. It is recommended that HDL should be above 40 mg/dL and LDL cholesterol be below 100 mg/dL. Once again, the best thing you can do to lower your cholesterol is to eat healthy foods, stick to proper portion sizes, and stay active. If you have high cholesterol, your doctor may recommend medications to help control it.

Stop Smoking: Smoking is the single worst thing that you can do for your body and for those around you. Unfortunately, NEPA has more smokers than the national average and a greater incidence of related cancers as well. It causes over 440,000 completely preventable deaths each year. If you do not smoke, do not start smoking. If you do smoke, you have probably heard all of the reasons that you should quit hundreds of times. Nicotine is extremely addictive and quitting is never easy. Your doctor can help you set a quit date, choose a method of quitting that works best for you, and provide you with the support that you need to quit smoking. Even if you have quit in the past, every day that you do not smoke is a day that your body is not being harmed and can try to heal any damage that may be reversible. Your heart and lungs will thank you.

If you can make even a few of these simple healthy choices it will go a long way towards your heart health. For more information, please visit the American Heart Association and happy American Heart Health Month to all!

Guest Columnist, Sarah Bashaw, is a third year medical student at TCMC. She has discovered a love for the heart and plans to become a cardiovascular surgeon. She also is dedicated to patient centered medicine and is eager to be an integral part of a health care team which is compassionate and focused on patients and their families. She comes to our area from a small town in Vermont and enjoys skiing and being outdoors. She received her bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, in 2011 where she was also the president of the College’s Honors Forum.

Read “Health & Exercise Forum” in the Scranton Times-Tribune Every Monday.  This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor of Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at The Commonwealth Medical College.