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Give a little love to your heart this holiday season

As the holidays roll around we often think of family gatherings, hearty meals, busy days of shopping and snow showers bringing a peaceful quiet to brightly-lit neighborhoods. We may not consider the many ways this season also brings an added strain to our hearts. While a time of celebration for many people across the world, the excessive eating and drinking of celebrations and the sudden increase of physical stress can take a toll on heart health and increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.

Responsible holiday feasting
This time of year may come with additional stress, but there are ways to celebrate the holidays in a way that’s easier on our hearts. Stephen Wasemiller, M.D., Cardiologist at Monument Health Heart and Vascular Institute points to excessive eating and increased consumption of alcohol as things that increase our risk for cardiovascular issues. Dr. Wasemiller says healthier eating doesn’t have to mean giving up your favorite foods for the holidays. “Keep in mind, just because you want to eat healthy, that doesn’t mean you have to exclude your holiday favorites. If you really want to drastically reduce how much you are eating, portion size is huge.” This can mean changing simple things like taking a smaller plate or bowl when serving food and trying smaller amounts of food when there are a lot of options to choose from. “If you want to try the different types of pie that everyone bought, try a half a slice or just share with somebody rather than trying to eat a full serving of everything that is laid out before you,” he continued, “and also, be sure to not only eat one type of food, like protein or carbohydrates. It’s still very important to eat things like leafy green vegetables, salads and fruits. Things that we should be eating on a regular basis anyway.”

Clearing the snow safely
Food isn’t the only thing increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke over the holidays. This time of year brings heavy snowstorms. The physical exertion that comes with shoveling driveways and sidewalks can amount to a lot of increased strain, especially for people who aren’t physically active on a regular basis. Dr. Wasemiller points out, “Shoveling snow in and of itself doesn’t itself pose an increased risk. However, if you’re going to partake in physical activities such as snow removal or any other increased activity in the cold, it’s important to know your limits and be mindful of what your body is telling you.”

Knowing your body’s limits is an important part of having a healthy and safe holiday season. When storms bring heavy snows into the area it can help to take things slow or rely on family or friends for help, “Don’t try to tackle it all at once. Take breaks often and if you feel like it’s going to be a lot for you, solicit the help of a friend or a family member or a neighbor that might be able to help you.”

Warning signs ahead
As with many things, prevention is often the best tool against experiencing something catastrophic like a heart attack or stroke. When we experience overexertion, our bodies will often give us signs that we are pushing too hard. Dr. Wasemiller encourages people to pay attention to those signs. He says, “Symptoms to look out for, may be different for different people. Chest pain is a big one, obviously, but shortness of breath or even just a feeling of uneasiness that you haven’t felt before. That would be something to pay attention to.” He says shortness of breath is normal when doing something physically intensive, but says to take it seriously, especially if it is more than normal. “When you start noticing the symptoms, stop, first of all, take a breather and see how your body responds,” he added, “If your symptoms don’t go away it may be reasonable to seek medical attention.”

Dr. Wasemiller also points to a lot of habits that can help a person stay healthy throughout the year and will reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems over the holidays. Proper hydration, getting a full night’s rest and being regularly physically active all go a long way in improving physical health. He says these goals aren’t as lofty or unattainable as it might seem. “One of the best ways to get exercise, not only around the holidays but every day, is to incorporate physical activity into your regular daily routine. Take the stairs instead of elevators or choose to walk to a nearby store or friend’s house rather than driving. These are things we can do year-round to stay healthy.”

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