What about alcohol? Isn’t it supposed to be good for your heart?
There’s lots of buzz around how alcohol can have protective effects on the heart. It is true that people with moderate alcohol intake have lower rates of heart disease than nondrinkers, mostly by raising good cholesterol (HDL) levels. But in today’s world, alcohol intake is not always moderate — which means one drink per day for women or one to two drinks per day for men. If people drink in excess, alcohol can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and heart failure. Binge drinking can also cause atrial fibrillation (irregular heart rhythm). I’m not saying that it’s necessary to live a stringent life. What’s key to remember is that everything is fine in moderation, alcohol included.
What are some of the biggest misperceptions about diet and exercise in relation to heart health?
That you have to be a perfect weight and exercise hard most days of the week. In terms of weight, yes, you want to have a body mass index (BMI) in the normal range, but you can be a bit overweight and still be healthy. The worst kind of fat to have is abdominal fat, so if you tend to gain around your middle, you want to watch for that. But I’m not in favor of strict diets. I think it’s important to avoid beverages loaded in sugar — we phased them out of vending machines and cafeterias here at NewYork-Presbyterian. And I really like the Mediterranean diet — lots of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, fish, lean meats (if you choose to eat meat), plant-based proteins, nuts, and limit red meat.
The same moderate approach goes for exercise. The official recommendation for people is to get 30 minutes of exercise five or so days a week. But I know for me, getting to the gym during the week is pretty impossible, especially with a newborn. Instead, I try to take 15 minutes every day to clear my head and do some stretching. Then, on weekends, I make sure to do a workout or two that gets my heart rate up. That might mean going for a run or playing a sport. What may be most important is to just keep your body moving. I love my treadmill desk; I answer all my emails on it. Sitting is the new smoking — even people who exercise are more at risk for health problems if they sit at a desk for hours a day. So if you get up from your computer to stretch every half an hour, take time to breathe and focus on your stress level, and then work up a sweat on weekends, you’ll be in good shape.
I never want to advocate for things that are not sustainable. It’s important to not have unrealistic expectations, but to have a healthy, balanced lifestyle that you can continue. If you are a generally healthy person, you can have red meat on occasion, and occasional drinks — nobody is saying you have to give up everything.