Resolutions Worth Keeping Creating Good Exercise and Diet Habits Is Key to Maintaining Heart Health

A month into 2010, many people’s new year’s resolutions — especially those involving health, diet, and fitness — are already falling away. It happens every year.

Courtney Harrness, health and wellness director for the YMCA of Greater Springfield, notices that enrollment numbers rise every January as people take steps to improve their heart health and general fitness. But statistics say many don’t follow through in the long term and reap the benefits that proper exercise can bring.

The American Heart Assoc. (AHA) put that tendency into hard numbers in November, releasing the results of a survey showing that intentions don’t always equal reality when it comes to exercise.

Specifically, 52{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of adults, men and women equally, resolved to make improvements in both health and wealth in the new year, while 58{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of adults say that both improving their diet and increasing their physical activity are important to them. But more than half, 54{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} say they find excuses not to exercise, with the number-one excuse (cited by 39{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of respondents) being lack of time.

What many people don’t realize, Harrness said, is that it doesn’t take a full-scale, structured workout regimen or even a gym membership to make some difference.

“The number-one thing we tell people is that walking is the best thing you can do, especially if you live a sedentary lifestyle,” he told The Healthcare News. That fact is backed up by the results, published last month, of a Canadian study revealing that people who sit for much of the day have a higher heart-attack risk — and mortality rate — than people who walk around on their jobs.

For those who want to undertake a workout plan beyond simple walks around the block, health clubs offer plenty of options, and employ trainers to help people determine what they need — and explain the benefits of physical activity, from heart health to bone strength, which can stave off osteoporosis in women.

Additionally, “I think one thing we’re starting to see is more talk of nutrition,” Harrness said. “From my point of view, that’s the most important part of it all. You can work out two hours a day, but if you’re leaving here and going to Burger King or Pizza Hut, you’re really not doing yourself much good. A balanced diet is as important as the workout itself.”

So … there’s a lot of advice out there. But are people listening?

Slowing Down

In many cases, no. A recent survey conducted by the Florida Department of Citrus revealed that, while most people feel knowledgeable when it comes to heart health, many do not put that knowledge into practice. In fact, 81{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of respondents reported feeling well-informed about ways to maintain heart health, and almost 90{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} knew they could help reduce the risk of heart disease by exercising and maintaining a healthy diet.

But, despite this understanding, they failed to make the best food choices or exercise enough, and more than half had already been diagnosed with heart disease or reported having one or more at-risk conditions, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes. Meanwhile, fewer than half of respondents chose heart healthy options when dining out or shopping for groceries, fewer than one-third often substituted heart-healthy options when cooking, and only 37{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} stocked their pantries with heart-healthy foods. Echoing one of the AHA’s findings, time pressures and perceived expense were among the most common reasons why respondents felt challenged to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“The number-one thing I’ve been noticing was the amount of soda people drink,” Harrness said. He used to drink a lot of it, too, he said, but now drinks water constantly throughout the day, which replenishes fluids and provides a feeling of fullness without weight gain. “The amount of calories and sugar in a soda will completely kill a person’s diet. When you drink 400 to 500 calories, that’s probably most of what you burned off in the workout.”

To help people curtail these fitness-killing mistakes, he suggests taking an inventory of habits one can improve, and then make the changes gradually. Doing so will not only be less jarring and easier to achieve than taking a cold-turkey approach, but will provide the satisfaction of a constant series of small accomplishments.

“We’re trying to get people to make small, subtle changes,” Harrness said. “Let’s say you drink soda every day of the week. You can try to cut that back to four or five days a week and replace it with water, which not only helps cleanse your system, but has no calories.”

Similarly, “we talk here about things like the importance of eating breakfast. People say they don’t have the time, or they want to sleep in a little longer rather than eat breakfast. But nowadays, there are so many healthy options, even on the go, and people need to get something for breakfast, get some nutrition into their body in the morning to kick-start their day. So if you never eat breakfast, try to eat something two or three days a week within an hour of waking up.

“Over the course of time,” he continued, “two or three days hopefully turns into four, five, six days. It becomes a routine, a habit, and the rest is history.”

Impactful Issues

For those who do choose to join a gym, health clubs offer workouts ranging from treadmills and stationary bikes to swimming pools — always a good way to elevate the heart rate.

Harrness said the Y follows guidelines created by the American College of Sports Medicine, recommending that its members typically get 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three to five times per week, each time pushing the heart to 55{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} to 90{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} of its maximum beats-per-minute rate (a figure determined, in most cases, by subtracting one’s age from 220).

Fortunately, the range of equipment and exercises available is so broad that even people with weak joints or those recovering from injury can find something with the right intensity to get the job done.

“Treadmills and the running track are the most stressful, and from there you go to the elliptical cross-trainer, then to the bicycle,” Harrness said, explaining the basic continuum of gym exercise relative to its impact on the body.

“The recumbent bicycles put less stress on the knees and ankles, yet still get the heart going,” he added.

And while recumbent bikes and steppers exercise the legs while taking pressure off the joints, a device called an upper-body ergometer is good for exercising the upper body and elevating the heart rate without stressing the legs at all. “We have a guy who had two knees replaced in November,” Harrness said, “and he’s starting to get slowly back into exercise that way. It’s also great for people in wheelchairs.”

The point is, today’s gyms and health clubs feature plenty of options for exercisers, no matter their individual needs or limitations — providing one less excuse not to stay fit and heart-healthy, and hopefully keeping people on track to maintain those elusive new year’s goals.

And that — like a crunchy vegetable or fresh piece of fruit — is something worth chewing on.

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