Dr. Erin Nitschke by Dr. Erin Nitschke
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The heart’s primary role is to continuously pump oxygenated blood to working tissues and other organ systems of the body. While this might sound like a simple job, the heart’s predictable synchronicity and comforting rhythm are what, at a basic physiological level, keep us alive. For the heart to perform optimally, we must keep it healthy and happy. Like the heart’s job, this isn’t as simple as it sounds. To make the heart the center of fitness, we must bring balance to all dimensions of our personal wellness.

Heart Health vs. Heart-Centered

When you hear the term “heart health,” you probably think about engaging in physical activity to reduce or avoid certain disorders and diseases. By contrast, being heart-centered means using a big-picture strategy to fully commit to living well physically, nutritionally and emotionally. In other words, yes, daily activity is essential, but physical activity alone is not enough to keep hearts (and minds) healthy and happy.

The Role of Nutrition

While being physically active on a daily basis and incorporating movement throughout the day is a great first (and important) step to becoming heart centered, it is critical to support those efforts with healthy nutrition practices.

When you engage in physical activity, your body is performing work. Like a car, your body needs the right fuel. Beyond supporting exercise habits, proper nutrition supports metabolic fitness and keeps your body’s organs functioning properly

Steps to Balancing Nutrition

You can begin to balance your nutritional habits by taking advantage of the ChooseMyPlate resource and its associated tools.

Focus on fresh, whole foods (e.g., foods that don’t come prepackaged and that don’t include a long list of ingredients). Try to include a variety of items in your daily habits. Here are some examples to get you started:

  • Whole grains
  • Fresh or frozen fruits and veggies and leafy greens
  • Low-fat dairy (or dairy alternatives if you are lactose sensitive)
  • Legumes and beans
  • Healthy fat sources such as nuts, natural peanut butter, olive oil and avocados
  • Lean protein sources such as chicken, fish and beef

In addition to making healthy food choices, focus on staying hydrated throughout the day.

If you find yourself intimidated by the idea of nutrition in general, take small steps and be gentle with yourself. Focus on effort and progress, not perfection.

Emotional Fitness

The heart and the brain are fundamentally linked. Research suggests emotions that adversely affect the brain also affect the heart. In fact, one study found that patients with newly diagnosed heart disease who become depressed are at greater risk of experiencing a harmful heart-related event over the next year.

Focusing on emotional fitness is one important key to keeping your heart’s health (and happiness) intact. Here are some active steps you can take to balance emotions and manage stress effectively.

  • Meditate – even 5 minutes a day will make a big impact
  • Read
  • Take daily activity breaks (one every hour)
  • Journal or engage in reflective writing
  • Practice gratitude (writing in a daily gratitude journal is a great outlet)
  • Seek the support of a certified health coach
  • Explore a creative outlet (writing, crafting, painting, etc.)
  • Socialize
  • Prioritize sleep

The heart is a cornerstone of wellness. Being well and balanced nutritionally, physically and emotionally will keep your heart, and you, healthy.