Get Your Heart Back in Shape

How to make a healthy heart your new normal as the COVID-19 pandemic continues
Woman walking in snow

While protecting yourself and your family from COVID-19 over the past year, you may not have paid as much attention to your own health — including your heart health.

The pandemic continues to take a physical, mental and emotional toll on our daily lives. As a result, many people are moving less, drinking more alcohol, eating poorly (including consuming “comfort” foods that are high in fat and sodium) and feeling more stressed.

While this is all perfectly understandable, it’s also concerning on many levels from a heart-health perspective. 

“It’s a perfect storm that worries cardiologists a lot,” says Rush cardiologist Anupama Rao, MD. “For months, people have been sitting all day, working from home, not going out and feeling socially isolated. Then there’s the immense stress from people getting sick, losing their jobs or having school-aged kids learning from home.”

These daily disruptions can add up to changes in blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels as well as sudden weight gain — a phenomenon so common it has earned the term “the quarantine 15,” popularly tagged #quarantine15 and #covid15 on social media. Gaining even a few pounds can raise your blood pressure, which can have long-term consequences.

“I’ve seen patients who have gained 10 to 15 pounds in a relatively short timeframe,” says cardiac electrophysiologist Timothy Larsen, DO. “As people stay home, their schedules are thrown off and they are eating at random times. They also aren’t getting much, if any, physical activity, which is always a big concern for heart patients because it increases the risks associated with cardiovascular disease.”

Building habits for long-term benefits

To get your heart health — and overall health — back on track, focus on starting new, healthier habits while you wait for you and/or your loved ones to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

“This can be an opportunity to make sustainable changes to your lifestyle,” Rao says. “On the plus side, we may have a lot more time at home. Many people have discovered their bicycles and hiking in forest preserves. Some are growing gardens and cooking at home. These are all positive things.”

New habits grow from small steps, and here are some good ways to start:

Cut back on salt and sugar.

Check whether you may be eating more of either, whether from something as simple as a frozen meal, or ordering takeout food for convenience or comfort.

The American Heart Association recommends most adults, especially those with high blood pressure or heart condition, limit their sodium to less than 1,500 milligrams a day. That’s much less than its general guideline of no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day — equal to a teaspoon of salt.

“Cutting back by even 1,000 milligrams a day can help improve conditions like high blood pressure and overall heart health,” Rao says.

Her advice: Don’t add table salt to food, choose fresh vegetables over processed or canned products, and read food labels. Deli meats, soups, frozen dinners, salted snacks and nuts tend to have a lot of sodium.

Watching how much sugar you eat is important, too. The AHA suggests focusing on added sugar, which besides cane and beet sugar includes sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, molasses, syrup, honey and fruit juice concentrates.

How much is too much varies, though the general recommended limits on added sugar are about 36 grams (9 teaspoons) for men and 25 grams (6 teaspoons) for women.

Start moving more.

Then, keep moving more each day. “Make it a goal to just add any amount of physical activity to what you’ve been doing,” Larsen says. “That might be walking up a flight of stairs or walking an extra quarter mile.”

The key is to find something that you like to do and will stick with. Consider going for a brisk walk or a bike ride, hiking, dancing or playing tennis (tennis is considered a very low-risk activity for COVID-19 transmission). Heavy yardwork and housework also count.

“Getting 30 to 45 minutes of activity a day has huge benefits not only for physical health but also mental health, and addressing mental health is vital to your heart health,” Rao says.

These small changes — checking food labels, walking an extra block, scheduling a checkup – will make a big difference for your heart.

Address your stress.

Stress plays a key role in heart disease, leading to hormone imbalance, poor habits and a sedentary lifestyle.

In addition to exercise, proven stress-busters that promote a sense of well-being include yoga and meditation – basically, any relaxing activity that requires your focus.

“Whether that’s reading, listening to music, baking or gardening, the key is taking time to do something that's both relaxing and enjoyable,” Larsen says.

Continue your cardiac care.

If you're already seeing a cardiologist, schedule regular checkups and check-ins to make sure your numbers stay on track and you don't develop any new issues. Often, these can be handled in a video visit.

For appointments that require a visit to Rush, every measure is in place to ensure patients are protected from COVID-19. Among other precautions, appointments are scheduled to minimize waiting, and all areas, including lobbies, strictly enforce social distancing and universal masking.

Tell your cardiologist how you're doing.

Your cardiologist pays close attention to your symptoms, your weight and your blood pressure, but they also want to know more.

“Patients tend to hold back on sharing some of the important factors that affect their health, whether it's socioeconomic stressors or mental health issues,” Rao says. “These challenges are important to us because they are important to your health, and we have a lot of resources to help you.”

Don't delay your care, even if you feel fine.

Heart patients need to stay on track with appointments. Otherwise, you may be hurting your health in ways you don’t realize.

For example, if you have atrial fibrillation (or, AFib) and have had ablation treatment or need medication monitoring, putting off an appointment migh create little risk in the short term. “But if the AFib returns, the longer you are in AFib, the harder it is to get your heart back in rhythm and the less likely you’ll stay out of AFib,” Larsen explains.

Another concern: heart failure patients who don’t follow up with their care.

“If you have an implanted pacemaker or defibrillator that is preventive and meant to reduce your risks, you may not feel bad and decide to cancel your appointment,” Larsen explains. “But if you delay care and your symptoms worsen, you could be at risk of sudden cardiac death.”

Whatever type of heart condition you have or are at risk of developing, you need to take care of yourself. And, Larsen says, you don't have to do a massiver overhaul to see positive results. “These small changes – checking food labels, walking an extra block, scheduling a checkup – will make a big difference for your heart.”

Related Stories