FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Medical experts say there are plenty of things Airmen can do to ensure a healthy heart, including quitting smoking and not drinking too much. Heart disease, heart attack, and stroke are just some of the consequences of not taking care of your heart.
To take care of your heart, physical activity, smarter nutritional diet choices and mindfulness are three key actions everyone can take, according to Capt. Regan Stiegmann, a Preventive Medicine resident physician at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences. She said Airmen need to hone in on “more functional and more impactful” changes that lead to a healthier diet.
“It’s the ‘crawl before you walk’ approach,” Stiegmann said. “I’m not saying you should make extremely drastic changes like to stop eating meat entire or stop eating dairy period. The more successful approach I’ve found is one small change at a time. Whether that change has to do with food choices, physical activity, or stress management, you start seeing the changes in your patients, and they start seeing how much that change impacts them.”
One small change Stiegmann said Airmen can do is to reduce the amount of processed foods and refined sugars they eat.
“Too much processed food and excess sugar leads to inflammation, which is the underpinning of most diseases including heart disease,” Stiegmann said. She added physical activity can address that state of inflammation, too.
“When you’re physically active you’re circulating more blood and oxygen to your muscles and encouraging new growth in your cells.” She said it’s not just about your cells but about the heart as well. “You’re creating strength in your heart muscles and your physical muscles, which is creating lean mass and helping to contribute to a general state of healthier wellbeing overall.”
Regular physical activity contributes not just to a healthier body weight but to healthier cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and a better sense of wellbeing in general.
Mindfulness, the third focus for good heart health, is all about how to manage stress in a smart way.
“Everybody has some element of stress in their life, and stress absolutely influences and impacts your body,” Stiegmann said. “Mindfulness helps reframe the way you approach the stressors you encounter, which in turn helps to reduce the amount of impact that stress can cause to your cells. Many people don’t know that stress can lead to states of inflammation.”
Finding small ways to improve each of these lifestyle-specific elements is important because poor heart health has been linked to many other health issues, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and long-term heart disease..
“It’s like a snowball effect when you start dealing with heart health because your heart is connected so intimately with everything else,” Stiegmann said. “Your number one and number two go-to organs are your heart and your brain. They are in a symbiotic loop, and the rest of your body is tied to that. When your heart stops working as properly as it should that ties to every other organ system in your body.”
Stiegmann said a doctor’s visit can help Airmen learn their risks for heart disease and how to stem those risks, particularly with changes in everyday activities. She also recommended lifestyle medicine providers who can help Airmen address all the elements related to heart health: what you eat, physical activity, mental health, the importance of quality sleep, and how to maintain a good relationship with stress.
“Every one of those lifestyle elements you can work on, improve, and ultimately see changes in your own personal health,” she said. “Each small improvement sets you up to succeed in avoiding long-term chronic disease.”
Men and women tend to make different choices when it comes to heart health, but everyone can benefit from improved lifestyle choices.