Heart Health: The Pandemic Way

February is Heart Month and staff with the Cardiovascular Rehabilitation Program (Cardiac Rehab) at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre (TBRHSC) want you to take control of your heart health, the pandemic way.

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted each and every one of us. However, throughout the hardships and social isolation, the past year has also shown us how truly important our health and wellness is. February is Heart Month and staff with the Cardiovascular Rehabilitation Program (Cardiac Rehab) at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre (TBRHSC) want you to take control of your heart health, the pandemic way.

Nine out of ten Canadians are living with one or more heart disease risk factors. There are certain risk factors that we cannot control, like age, sex, ethnicity and heritage, family and personal medical history, and personal/environmental circumstances. However, the other risk factors are modifiable, meaning that simple changes in your daily routine can help to prevent heart disease from occurring or happening again. But what kind of changes can you make during a global pandemic?

Exercise and Physical Activity: “The gyms may be closed, but there are still great ways to get exercise throughout your day,” said Katherine Chisholm, a Registered Kinesiologist with the Cardiac Rehab program at TBRHSC. “Many local gym facilities are offering virtual training sessions that require little to no equipment – and if that doesn’t interest you, try that old treadmill or stationary bike collecting dust in your basement, or visit a local recreational trail. Maybe try Zumba to your favorite song, or a new YouTube fitness video – try anything and everything until you find something you love and then do that for 30 minutes, every day.”

Obesity: Currently, 60% of Canadian adults are overweight, doubling their risk for developing heart disease. “With the added stress of being home bound, we have more time to eat mindlessly and to make excuses to not exercise,” continued Chisholm. “A food and exercise log act as great resources to keep track of our healthy habits and avoid unnecessary weight gain. Try setting weekly goals to monitor your progress, or keep an eye on how your clothes fit as a rule of thumb. Remember, weight fluctuates so do not be discouraged if you notice changes throughout your fitness journey.”

 Healthy Eating: Eating fresh food can be a challenge when we have to limit our public outings to the local grocery store. “Before your next visit to the grocery store, plan your meals and ingredient list for a healthy shopping experience,” said Nicole Strong, a Registered Dietitian with the Cardiac Rehab program at TBRHSC. “There are a variety of shelf stable foods, such as grains, canned vegetables, and canned or dried legumes that you can fill your pantry with. You can also fill your freezer with a variety of vegetables, fruits, lean meats, fish, and seafood. Always be mindful of portion sizes, and what’s in your food. The ingredient list is a great spot to look. Be aware of the extra sugar, salt, and fats that have been added to the food that is sold.”

Being Smoke-Free: Smoking triples your risk for developing heart disease and increased stress directly impacts our cravings throughout the day. “If you are currently a smoker, any reduction in smoking can improve your overall health,” said Strong. “There are smoking cessation programs available throughout the city, at some family health teams, the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, and within the programs at TBRHSC.”

Limiting Your Alcohol: Canada’s Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines recommend no more than 2-3 drinks per day. “Alcohol intake increases your risk of heart disease, may make symptoms of a pre-existing disease worse, and can even affect how some medications work in the body,” said Strong.

Stress: Fear of contracting or spreading COVID-19 is very real, and this added stress directly affects our cardiovascular health. “Acknowledge your feelings of anger, frustration or fear and remind yourself it is okay to feel this way”, said Rae-Anne Robinson, a Register Social Worker with the Cardiac Rehab program at TBRHSC. “Engage in healthy habits, use your favorite stress busting hobbies or breathing techniques when needed, use reputable sources for information and take a break from the constant media exposure, and keep in touch with your loved ones with regular phone calls or virtual visits. But most importantly, remember you do not have to face these challenges alone. You can ask for help through your local professional supports.”

This Heart Month, take control of your heart health by relieving the added pressures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. For further questions about your risk for heart disease, talk to your primary care provider.