Healthy Heart

Knowing what puts your heart at risk and how to control these factors is empowering and allows you to better manage your health and well-being.

August 19, 2014

As with most things having to do with your health, knowledge is power. And more than that perhaps, knowledge helps you better understand what health conditions you are at particular risk for and then, from there, make informed decisions about how you might mitigate those risks.

Risk Factors

Knowing what puts you at risk as well as how you can control some of these factors—is empowering and allows you to better manage your health and well-being, which is something you strive for with your massage therapy clients and need to do for yourself, too.

Cholesterol. High cholesterol is a contributing factor to heart disease, and is tricky because there really are no symptoms—meaning you can have high cholesterol and not know it. But as the cholesterol builds up in your arteries and hardens to plaque, blood flow can be restricted, leading to heart attack and stroke. There are two types of cholesterol, one good (HDL) and one bad (LDL). High levels of LDL can clog your arteries. Experts believe that good cholesterol, however, can slow the buildup of plaque in your arteries, helping to reduce your risk of heart attack. It’s a bit of a doubleedged sword, however, as when your HDL cholesterol is too low, you increase your risk of heart disease. 

High blood pressure. Not unlike high cholesterol, high blood pressure can be sneaky, seemingly appearing out of nowhere at times. Often, too, people picture someone with high blood pressure as being tightly wound and high-strung, but that’s simply not the case. According to the American Heart Association, you can be the most calm and seemingly relaxed person and still suffer from high blood pressure. High blood pressure makes your heart work harder, which, as you might assume, isn’t a good thing and can lead to several problems, including stroke, heart attack and kidney failure, to name a few.

Inactivity. It’s easy sometimes to think that after a hard day of work, what you really want to do is go home and sit on the couch instead of taking a walk or going for a run or jumping on the treadmill. That’s natural, particularly because you work in a profession that is physically and emotionally demanding. But, as the American Heart Association so boldly reminds us: Being sedentary can kill you. People who don’t get out and get moving are at greater risk for blood clots, high blood pressure, stroke and heart attack, as well as other heart problems.

Stress. Although the American Heart Association reports there is no direct link to stress and heart disease, the fact that chronic stress negatively impacts your health and can cause issues related to your heart isn’t debatable. That stress isn’t all bad is also a well-known fact, as it’s your body’s natural way of dealing with situations that demand you either prepare for confrontation or run away, the “fight or flight” response.

Problems begin, however, when your body’s reactions are consistently heightened, shifting in and out of the fight or flight response for days or even weeks at a time. Chronic stress, where your heart rate and blood pressure are constantly elevated, may lead to damage of your artery walls and can weaken your immune system. There are several ways you can decrease your risk of heart disease, most of which don’t require you make huge adjustments to your lifestyle.

Managing the Risks

Get moving. Inactivity is a contributing factor to heart disease, and so it makes sense that physical activity is one way to help minimize the risk. You don’t have to spend hours at the gym to make a real difference. According to the American Heart Association, even a 30-minute brisk walk five times a week can help lower your risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

How Massage Can Help

Whether you’re regularly active and have a fitness regimen you follow religiously or are just getting started, some recent research indicates that incorporating massage therapy into your exercise plan may be beneficial.

A 2012 study through the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, indicates that massage therapy reduces inflammation of skeletal muscle acutely damaged through exercise.

The study found evidence at the cellular level suggesting massage therapy may affect inflammation in a way similar to anti-inflammatory medications, which is good news for people who like to get out there and stay active but occasionally are hindered by injury or soreness.

So, as you develop a plan to get and stay fit, consider how regular massage therapy can help keep you on track and in the game.

Manage your blood pressure and cholesterol. Controlling these two fairly significant contributors to heart disease is crucial to maintaining heart health— and doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Two great ways to help manage both your blood pressure and cholesterol are eating right and, as noted earlier, being physically active. With busy schedules, eating a balanced diet isn’t always easy, but there are some simple things you can do.

If you think you might struggle or don’t have a good idea of everything you eat in a day, for example, the American Heart Association suggests keeping a food diary so you can track the types of choices you’re making and adjust where necessary. And once you know what you’re eating and where you struggle (do you always go for that mid-afternoon sweet treat, for example?), making better choices becomes easier.

Make a conscious effort to cut back on sugar and refined foods. Add vegetables and fruits where you might otherwise have grabbed a quick bag of chips or piece of chocolate. Try eating fish twice a week when possible, and look for fiber-rich, whole-grain foods when shopping.

Stay on top of stress. Again, there is no direct link between stress and heart disease, but chronic stress can potentially damage your arteries and does play a role in other well-known risk factors, such as high blood pressure. So, learning how to keep stress in line is key.

Again, remaining physically active is a good way to combat stress, so if you don’t have a regular exercise regimen, consider getting started. Here, too, you might think about adding in a practice that helps calm your mind, such as meditation, for example, or yoga.

And be sure you aren’t waiting for stress to build up before you do something about it—take action before your stress becomes chronic and potentially harmful to your health.

Manage Stress & Take Care of Your Heart

More and more research indicates that massage therapy is beneficial for a variety of conditions, and helping relieve stress is one area where massage really shines. 

A 2012 study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, for example, shows that massage for nurses during work hours can help to reduce stress and related symptoms, including headaches, shoulder tension, insomnia, fatigue, and muscle and joint pain, while another published in BMJ Supportive and Palliative Care suggests that massage therapy can—when used in combination with standard care—help reduce stress, anxiety, pain and fatigue in patients facing late stage disease. 

So, along with exercise and eating right, consider how incorporating regular massage into your health and wellness practices can help you better manage stress, and help you take better care of your heart.

Caregivers, Don’t Forget to Care for Yourself

Self-care isn’t only about personally mitigating the risks of developing heart disease, it’s also necessary for those people who may be caring for people with heart disease. As massage therapists, you spend your days caring for your clients and so can understand the demands placed on caregivers.

Or, perhaps you even know firsthand because you play the role of caregiver for a loved one. Caregivers especially may be under a great deal of stress and anxiety, so part of coping with caring for someone with heart disease is finding ways to manage these feelings. 

Ask for help. Don’t be afraid to admit that you can’t do it all, because you can’t. Lean on friends and family when you need to, and visit your doctor when necessary so you can be sure you’re maintaining your own health and wellness.

Learn to say no. Just as you need to ask for help, you also need to learn how to say no. Whether it’s an offer of help that doesn’t work for you or an invitation that doesn’t fit your schedule, being able to say no will help keep you from feeling overwhelmed. 

Deal with the stress. You are going to feel stress, that’s probably unavoidable. But how you manage stress is completely up to you. Think of ways that both fit your schedule and make you feel better, like getting a massage once a month or taking a weekly yoga class.