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The Power of Sleep

Our sleeping hours are when our bodies and brains heal themselves. Giving your body that time to repair cells, tissues and blood vessels and rest your brain will leave you feeling better, with a lower risk of chronic disease and a healthier heart.

Awareness is key when it comes to preventing or mitigating symptoms of heart disease, but eight crucial facts are particularly important if you want your heart to get in its best shape possible.

In 2022, the AHA added getting healthy sleep to their cardiovascular health checklist, updating Life’s Simple 7 to Life’s Essential 8. This checklist serves as AHA’s guide to preventative health, encouraging Americans to take control of the health factors that make the biggest difference in heart health. Here are the essential eight facts you need to know to live your best, heart-healthy life.

1. Get Healthy Sleep

Whether you’re a mother who puts everyone else to bed first, a student staying up late to finish assignments or a career woman burning the midnight oil to get ahead on the next project, you’re likely waiting for the weekend to catch up on sleep. But hitting the hay earlier may be more important than you think. New research from the American Heart Association shows that getting sleep is crucial for maintaining overall health, and that those with healthier sleep patterns can manage health factors such as weight, blood pressure or risk for Type 2 diabetes more effectively.

Sleeping better doesn’t just mean sleeping longer, although that’s one part of it, says Dr. Eman Hamad, the medical director of the advanced heart failure and transplant program and director of the cardio oncology program at Temple University Hospital. The AHA recommends that most adults get seven to nine hours of restful sleep each night, while children require much more. They recommend 10 to 16 hours per day, including naps, for children ages 5 and under; nine to 12 hours for ages 6 to 12; and eight to 10 hours for ages 13 to 18. This sleep should be uninterrupted, without noise in the background, to give the body the time it needs to cycle through each sleep stage, she explains. 

“You really need to get a good restful sleep where your body can have the time to regenerate,” Hamad says. “Sleeping during the weekend to make up for it is not going to work. Your body really needs that time to shut down.”

If you struggle to fall asleep, Hamad recommends starting a few healthy sleep habits: shutting down devices like cell phones or televisions 30 minutes to an hour before bed; finding a relaxing activity to do before bed, like reading or stretching; avoiding caffeine in the second half of the day; and scheduling a “bed time” for yourself to ensure you will be able to get your necessary hours of sleep in. If your lifestyle does not allow for a full uninterrupted seven to nine hours a night, you may want to factor in naps during the day if possible. 

2. Eat Better

We often hear the same advice from health care professionals: Eat healthier. But how can you start? There’s a few simple swaps you can make in your life that will go a long way. First, if you eat out or eat prepackaged foods primarily, cooking a few meals at home is an important first step. At-home cooking allows you to control factors like the sodium content in a certain meal. 

Traditionally, diets have been seen as a way of limiting food intake. If this mindset has not been helpful in your healthy eating journey, try thinking about adding healthy foods to your diet rather than taking anything away. In the long run, this can be a sustainable way to start integrating heart-healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and lean animal proteins in your diet while ultimately reducing some less healthy options like sweetened drinks or red and processed meats. Find hundreds of heart-healthy recipes online at recipes.heart.org. 

3. Be More Active

According to the AHA, adults should get a weekly total of at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. This should include muscle-strengthening as well as cardiovascular activity. 

If you’re new to exercising and intimidated by the gym, don’t stress! Set realistic goals and make small changes that won’t leave you feeling overwhelmed. For example, taking a daily walk is one easy way to start reaping the health benefits of regular exercises. If weight-lifting isn’t right for you, there are also plenty of body weight exercises you can do at home. If you need inspiration, try the “Move More Together” at-home workout videos that the American Heart Association has posted online. 

4. Quit Tobacco

Quitting a habit is never easy, but when it comes to tobacco, the effects are almost immediate. Within one year of quitting tobacco, your risk of heart disease goes down by half. Smoking is also the most preventable cause of death in the U.S., according to the AHA, and is linked to about one third of all deaths from heart disease. 

If you’d like to quit, there are a few ways you can make it easier for yourself. Start by creating a plan that fits your lifestyle. Pick a quit date that is coming up within the next seven days, whether you’re quitting cold turkey or gradually, and stick to it. Decide if you need help from a health care provider or nicotine replacement, and find support where you need it, whether it’s from a friend or a support program. Physical activity can also help you manage the stress and cravings when quitting.

5.  Manage Weight

Finding and maintaining your body’s optimal weight is one way to ensure you are on a healthy heart journey. Sticking to an exercise regimen that keeps your body moving during your days and eating healthy, protein-rich meals that keep you satiated will help you reach your goals. 

Remember: Less body weight does not always translate to a healthier body, and finding the optimal body weight for yourself is a personal journey that can take time. 

6. Control Cholesterol

Your body needs cholesterol (the fat-like substance found in blood) to build healthy cells, but high levels can increase the risk of heart disease. There are two types of cholesterol that travel in the body by different lipoproteins (LDL and HDL). HDL is known as “good” cholesterol, as it can help keep LDL (“bad” cholesterol) from sticking to artery walls. 

During your annual physical, your physician can order blood work that will measure your cholesterol. It is important to know your levels and track your cholesterol over time in order to manage it if it increases to an unhealthy level. 

7. Manage Blood Sugar

Most of the food we eat is turned into glucose (or blood sugar) that our bodies use as energy. Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas that helps the body’s cells take up glucose from blood and lower blood sugar levels. In cases of Type 2 diabetes, the body struggles to use the insulin it makes effectively or it loses its ability to make insulin at all. 

Regular blood work done by health care professionals can help you understand and monitor your risk of developing diabetes. 

8. Manage Blood Pressure

High blood pressure has long been associated with higher risks for heart disease. Eating healthy foods and exercising regularly are two ways to help keep your blood pressure under control. Healthy blood pressure levels are considered to be less than 120/80 mm Hg, while high blood pressure is defined as 130-139 mm Hg systolic pressure (the top number in a reading) or 80 to 89 mm Hg diastolic pressure (bottom number). 

Your primary care physician can help you monitor your blood pressure and provide recommendations for maximizing your health. 

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