Many Americans hit the gym and watch their diet in order to look great come bathing suit season, but did you now there is a much more important reason to maintain a healthy weight? The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that 70% of adults are overweight and more than 1/3 are obese, which significantly increases the risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.1 Even losing a few pounds can make meaningful improvements to your health.
Heart healthy reasons to lose weight
Achieving a healthy weight directly translates into a healthier heart by:
- Lowering blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels * Raising "good" HDL cholesterol level * Lowering blood pressure
- Reducing the likelihood of developing diabetes. In some people, diabetes significantly increases the danger of having a heart attack.
Risk factors for heart disease
A risk factor is something that increases your chances of developing a certain disease or condition. Risk factors for heart disease, also called cardiovascular disease, are those that put stress on your heart and blood vessels, increasing your chance of having a heart attack or stroke. These risk factors include:
- Excess weight, especially fat located around the belly
- High blood pressure
- High blood sugar levels (diabetes or prediabetes)
- High levels of bad cholesterol and low levels of good cholesterol
Adults have these risk factors more often than children because it usually takes time for them to develop. Unfortunately, a growing number of children now show signs of heart disease, too. Researchers from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)2 looked at the prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors in adolescents. The results, published in the journal Pediatrics, showed that overweight and obese children were more likely to show preliminary signs of heart disease than those who were normal weight.
Causes of being overweight
Being overweight happens when you take in more calories than you use. Calories are units of energy found in food. All activity in our bodies is fueled by calories, including physical activity and basic bodily functions. Excess weight gain occurs when the body has more calories than it needs. If this imbalance happens regularly it will lead to being overweight or obese. Factors that can influence weight gain include:
- Lifestyle factors: types of food eaten, amount of exercise, and smoking
- Biologic factors--the amount and activity of certain chemicals in the body
- Medications, such as corticosteroids, antidepressants, or antipsychotics
- Underactive thyroid
- Cushing's disease
- Polycystic ovary syndrome
How to maintain a healthy weight
You may have heard that maintaining a healthy weight is as easy as eating less and exercising more. It is true that taking in fewer calories than you use each day is one of the simplest ways to lose weight, but it is never easy. Never mind the fad diets, weight-loss pills, and herbal remedies--it all comes down to a balanced diet and a regular exercise program.
The first step is determining your current weight status: Are you underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese? The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a standardized method used by health professionals to evaluate weight and body fat. BMI is calculated by using your weight and height. It helps indicate whether you are at risk of health problems that are related to being overweight or obese. If your BMI is 25 or higher, you are at risk for a number of serious health problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, pregnancy-related disorders, and osteoarthritis.
If you want to know your BMI, the CDC website has BMI calculators for adults, and children and teens. BMI values are interpreted as follows:
- 18.4 or less = underweight
- 18.5-24.9 = normal weight
- 25-29.9 = overweight
- 30 and over = obese
Although BMI is a reliable method, it is not foolproof. Being obese is defined as being 20% or more overweight. Because muscle tissue weighs more than fat tissue, though, heavily muscled people may fall into the obese range when they really are not obese.
Ways to lose weight and improve heart health
To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in. Maintaining your weight requires a balance between calorie consumption and expending those calories. While dieting alone will help you lose weight in the short run, it is difficult to keep the weight off without a combination of diet and regular exercise. A healthy lifestyle is not a short-term fix, but a way of life. Losing even 10% of your body weight may lower your blood pressure, reduce your risk of diabetes, and improve your heart health. To lose weight and decrease your risk of heart disease you should:
Eat healthy foods
Changing your diet helps reduce risk factors like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and excess body weight. Adding more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to your diet, while cutting back on animal protein, saturated fat, and cholesterol, are good for you no matter what your age. Your doctor or a dietician can help you with meal planning.
In addition, it is a good idea to keep track of how much you eat and drink and to eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. Eating smaller portions is linked to more successful weight loss and maintenance over time. Of all meals, though, breakfast is the most important. Skipping breakfast increases body weight, so make sure that your breakfast is packed with fruits and whole grains--think oatmeal with slices of apple, not bacon and eggs.
Be more active
Exercise is important to your heart health and does not have to be strenuous or time-consuming in order to be effective. There are several different types of exercise that you can do. An ideal exercise program combines four types of exercise:
- Strength training
A good goal for many people to work up to is exercising 4-6 times a week for 30-60 minutes at a time. Work closely with your doctor to create a safe exercise program for you.
Drink alcohol in moderation
Moderate intake of alcohol is a maximum of 2 drinks per day for men and a maximum of 1 drink per day for women.
If you smoke, talk to your doctor about strategies to quit. There are many options, like online programs, smoking cessation drugs, and counseling. Quitting smoking has an immediate positive effect on the body.
Now that you have the tools, getting started is up to you. Start slowly, have carrots or an apple for a snack, instead of a bag of chips. Take a walk around the block before or after work today. Just remember, the sooner you begin working toward your ideal weight, the sooner you will reap the health benefits.
Goals for weight loss and achieving heart health
The goal is to reduce your weight to a point where it is no longer a risk to your health. The initial goal is to lose approximately 10% of the baseline body weight or 1-2 pounds a week in the first 6 months of treatment. This may be less weight than you would like to lose but is a more realistic goal. Weight loss is best accomplished with lifestyle changes, including how you shop, how you prepare food, and changing eating and exercising habits. To maintain the heart-healthy benefits you achieve, it is essential to continue with a lifestyle of better eating and exercising habits in order to prevent regaining the weight.
According to the American Heart Association, "Even losing a few pounds can provide you with cardiovascular benefits, so every step in the right direction is a step toward healthier living." Keeping your weight in a healthy range will:
- Circulate blood more efficiently through your body.
- More easily manage fluid levels in your body.
- Reduce your chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and sleep apnea.
- 1American Heart Association (AHA): www.heart.org
- 2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): www.cdc.gov
- American Council on Exercise: www.acefitness.org
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: http://www.eatright.org
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