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Jordan Ciambrone

By now, the heart-shaped chocolate is consumed and Valentine’s Day cards recycled. Take a moment, though, to reconsider the electricity sparked by intimate relationships. We’re talking about those sparks that cause hearts to “skip a beat.” Consider the optimism held for the next date night or mountain adventure. Think about the gratitude felt after opening a thoughtful note or sharing a lovely meal.

Physical sensations and emotional experiences coexist alongside a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters that influence heart health. “Nodes” in the human heart generate electricity that causes the heart to contract. Essentially, hearts are responsible for creating and sustaining the rhythm of life.

There are many ways to keep a heart healthy and fit. Getting enough cardiovascular exercise and eating whole-food, plant-based diets top the charts, but there’s more! Believe it or not, the mind and emotions play a significant role in heart health. Evidence suggests that having a positive outlook can be heart protective. States of optimism, cheerfulness, gratitude, and finding purpose and passion in life can actually act as preventive medicine. When practiced authentically and consistently, mental states become character traits.

While gratitude, appreciation and compassion practices are effective, what is more important is finding personally meaningful activities that lift spirits. To start, determine whether socializing or solo time for introspection effectively yield a happy heart. It may take time to recognize, allow and take action to supply one’s own needs. Time well spent may uncover a hidden purpose or passion that drives life forward. Organize time to engage in those activities, even if it’s just a morsel of time to start savoring the very aspects of life that make heart wheels spin.

Let’s explore a few options for meaningful activities together!

Exercise and physical activity are well documented methods for maintaining well-being. Specifically, heart healthy adults engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity 3-5 days per week with 2-plus days of strength training. Small doses add up. Start small, with simply choosing to sit less.

Rest is just as important as physical activity. For those who experience inordinate amounts of stress (everyone), rest may be even more important. Research shows a strong connection between stress, depression and heart health. With consistent high perceived stress, the body does not have a chance to recover. For heart health, pop open the calendar and schedule social time, a leisurely walk, time for reading, prayer, meditation — whatever best calms and feeds the heart and mind. Prioritizing regular exercise and emotional health pays dividends!

Job loss or other major lifestyle changes can impact daily choices, for the better or for the worse. One simple area to focus is on choosing which nutrients fuel the body. According to the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, there is extensive evidence that supports a whole-food, plant-based dietary pattern (WFPBD). This pattern includes a variety of minimally processed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Start by observing current dietary patterns, then making small incremental changes to decrease sweets, fast or fried foods, refined grains, sugar, and/or high sodium foods. One strategy may lie in crowding out the plate with favorite vegetables making less room processed, nutrient depleted foods.

Detecting current patterns takes time and attention. Go easy on yourself, and plan for setbacks. No matter which slice of lifestyle you choose to tend, perhaps it all boils down to habitually asking one simple question:

What will be most nourishing right now?

Jordan Ciambrone, Association Director of Healthy Living and Corporate Relations at the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, and her colleague, Bethany Kelsey, breathe spirit into lifestyle recommendations on the “Mind Body Medicine Podcast.” Find it at ppymca.org/podcast.

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