Updated: Feb 2, 2021
A Roadmap to Heart Health
With the heart playing such a vital role in keeping our bodies functioning, it is a no-brainer that we should do everything we can to keep it healthy. Unfortunately, heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death worldwide.
Heart disease can refer to a number of different conditions including heart attack, stroke, heart failure, arrhythmia, heart valve problems etc. Heart disease occurs when plaque develops in the arteries and blood vessels that lead to the heart. This blocks important nutrients and oxygen from reaching your heart. This doesn’t happen overnight or after one unhealthy meal, it is a slow build up over time culminating from lifestyle choices and inflammation.
To give you a visual:
■ Belly fat puts pressure on your kidneys causing high blood pressure
■ High blood pressure punches holes in the walls of arteries- filling those walls with cholesterol as plaster
■ When you smoke that’s like hammering nails into the walls of arteries
■ Belly fat blocks ability of insulin to work causing high blood sugar. This is like having glass shrapnel scraping the insides of your arteries causing more atherosclerosis
We can begin to identify a roadmap to heart health and longevity by looking at something called the "Blue Zones". The Blue Zones are places around the world that not only have the highest concentrations of centenarians-- or people who live over the age of 100, but also clusters of people who have grown old without health problems like heart disease, obesity, cancer, or diabetes. Interestingly, studies have found that genetics only play a 20–30% role in longevity. Therefore, environmental influences, including diet and lifestyle, play a huge role in determining your lifespan.
There are nine traits that all the Blue Zone regions have in common:
Daily natural movement The American Heart Association recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week to help prevent heart disease. Additionally, scientific research has linked too much sitting to poor heart health. Exercise is proven to improve cardiovascular function as you work the heart muscle and train the body to efficiently use oxygen. Aerobic exercise is best for heart health, strengthening the heart and lungs, dropping blood pressure, increasing energy levels and improving circulation. In the blue zones the common exercise thread is that the people in the areas moved naturally. Meaning they had built in movement in everything they did. Such as house work, yard work, or walking everywhere. This isn’t quite as realistic in our society but similar examples could be taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking farther away.
Life Purpose or having a strong sense of worth- whether this be in work or play. This is known as “ikigai” in Okinawa or “plan de vida” in Nicoya.
Time to rest and unwind Unmanaged stress has been linked to various heart conditions, including high blood pressure, irregular heart rhythms, high cholesterol, and damage to the arteries. People living in the Blue Zone regions participate in various practices that help reduce stress referred to as “downshifting,”. Such activities include meditation, prayer, napping, yoga, dance, or a glass of wine on a daily basis.
Eat until you are 80% full Also known as “hara hachi bu” in Japanese culture. This helps to support digestion and maintain a healthy weight. A number of studies have also shown that eating slowly can reduce hunger and increase feelings of fullness, compared to eating rapidly. This may be because the hormones that make you feel full only reach their maximum blood levels 20 minutes after you eat. Therefore, by eating slowly and only until you feel 80% full, you may eat fewer calories and feel full longer.
Eat a predominately plant-based diet One thing common to Blue Zones is that those who live there primarily eat a 95% plant-based diet. Studies on the impact of nutrition on heart health support this way of eating, showing that diets higher in plant-based foods were associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Instead, diets in the Blue Zones are typically rich in vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and fish.
Drink in moderation People in Blue Zones drink one to two glasses of red wine per day, which may help prevent heart disease and reduce the risk of death due to its high level of anti-oxidants.
Spirituality having a sense of belonging in a faith-based community
Keep family close In many Blue Zones, grandparents often live with their families. Studies have shown that grandparents who look after their grandchildren have a lower risk of death .
Community having a close social circle of supportive, like-minded individuals. Studies have confirmed that connectedness is important for helping prevent heart disease. Specifically, one study showed that married couples are at less risk of cardiovascular complications. Another study showed the detrimental effect that toxic relationships can have on heart health.
Although each Blue Zone differs slightly, they mostly eat a plant-based diet, exercise regularly, drink moderate amounts of alcohol, get enough relaxation and have good spiritual, family and social networks. We can be inspired by individuals in blue zones by adopting some of these habits to ultimately culminate better heart health and overall well-being.
Your Heart will thank you.