How to Use Technology to Maintain and Improve Cardiovascular Health
Across the globe, more people die from heart disease than from any other cause. Taking care of your heart can help keep you healthy and may prevent you from dying too soon. The good news is that there are many things you can do lower your risk of heart disease.In recent years, people have been figuring out more ways to use technology to address health issues. These new tools can help people more easily make changes to their lifestyle, find information and tips related to health, and connect with healthcare providers. Finding the right apps, websites, and programs can help you become a better version of yourself!
The term "cardiovascular disease" actually refers to a large group of related disorders or events that affect the heart and blood vessels. Some of these conditions are:
- Coronary artery disease: the hardening and narrowing of the blood vessels that bring blood to the heart, leading to less blood flow
- Peripheral arterial disease: a circulatory condition where fatty deposits and calcium build up in blood vessels and prevent enough blood from reaching organs, arms, legs, or brain
- Heart attack: an event where the heart muscle dies as blood flow is blocked by a clot or by a buildup of plaque in the blood vessels
- Stroke: an event where brain cells begin to die, caused by either a blockage of blood flow to the brain or bleeding in the brain
Who Gets Heart Disease?
People of any gender, race, and ethnicity can experience heart disease. Risk factors that make people more likely to get heart disease include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol levels
- History of smoking
- Being overweight
- Eating an unhealthy diet
- Not getting enough exercise
- Drinking too much
How Can I Keep My Heart Healthy?
Lowering your risk of heart and blood vessel diseases, reducing your chance of having a heart attack or stroke, and addressing risk factors such as high cholesterol all involve simple lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, drinking less, eating a diet full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and exercising on a regular basis.
While these changes sound fairly simple on the surface, anyone who has tried to break an old habit or adopt a new one knows how hard it can be! Luckily, there are more tools than ever before to help people make these changes.
In the past couple of decades, doctors and researchers have developed many new programs to help patients receive health information virtually, rather than meeting with a healthcare provider in-person. Called telehealth or telemedicine, these programs may include having formal doctor's appointments over the phone or a video chat. Other telehealth tools may include using wearable devices, smartphone apps, or online portals or programs. Additionally, people are increasingly using more informal tools such as websites or apps that can help them build habits surrounding diet, exercise, sleep, and stress. Here, we'll dive into some of these tools.
Get More Exercise
Exercise has many beneficial effects related to heart health, including:
- Better metabolism
- Less inflammation
- Decreased heart rate and blood pressure
- Raised levels of healthy cholesterol (HDL)
- Lower risk of heart failure and heart disease
- Lower chance of developing diabetes
How Much Exercise Should We Be Getting?
Experts recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week. This is equal to 30 minutes of exercise five days a week. However, even if you're not able to meet these goals, some exercise is always better than none. People who have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease tend to be less active, but even low-intensity walking may help people boost heart health.
There are many ways get more exercise, some of which involve making use of new technology. These may include:
- Wear a pedometer to track your steps. Try to increase the distance you walk each day!
- Use social media to find a local running or walking group in your city.
- Get a GPS-enabled watch. These can help track how long you walk, run, or bike. Some can also track your heart rate, or share your workout to social media! Alternately, there are many free apps that can use your smartphone's GPS to track the time and distance of your workouts.
- Take your dog on a long walk rather than letting her run around the back yard or a dog park.
- Don't have a dog? Borrow one! There are several dog-walking apps that you can join relatively easily. This can be a good excuse to take some walks around your neighborhood with a new furry friend!
- Participate in a physical activity you love, such as gardening or woodworking. To help with motivation, find a forum or Facebook group full of other enthusiasts who can provide advice and inspiration.
- Join a gym, in person or virtually! Several gyms and personal trainers now offer online classes.
Before you start a new exercise program or significantly raise your activity level, make sure to talk to your doctor. In some cases, it may be better for you to ease your way into a new routine or slowly work up to your goals.
Why You Shouldn't Sit Down All Day
Unfortunately, it's not only exercise that we should be worrying about. Sedentary behavior, which includes anytime you're sitting or lying down, also leads to heart disease. This means that in addition to regularly exercising, you should be thinking about getting more activity throughout the day.
Here are some ways to improve your daily activity level:
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Walk, bike, or use public transportation rather than driving.
- Do more chores around the house.
- At work, have a walking meeting.
- Work from a standing desk, rather than sitting down.
- Get an activity tracker. These devices are often worn around the wrist as watches or bracelets. In addition to tracking exercise, some can track how long you're sedentary and will remind you to get up and move around at regular intervals throughout the day. Research shows that activity trackers can help people be less sedentary.
Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet
The things we eat can affect our heart and blood vessel health. In particular, eating too much red meat and salt has been linked to a greater likelihood of cardiovascular disease. Drinking large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis has also been tied to heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke.
Obesity has also been linked to poor heart health. People who are overweight may also be more likely to have heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. In addition to exercise, eating more heart-healthy foods may help people shed some extra pounds and lower their disease risk.
Meal Plans for Better Cardiovascular Health
A couple of different diets have been shown to bring heart health. The DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels. This program involves eating less salt and more healthy nutrients such as calcium and potassium. Another diet, the Mediterranean diet, has also been shown to have health-boosting properties. Both of these diets emphasize eating more fruits and vegetables, lean meats, nuts, and healthy oils. Ask your physician about whether one of these diets may be a good fit for you.
Eating healthfully can be challenging, but many strategies can help:
- Make time to cook more meals at home. Many meals you get in restaurants are full of salt.
- To learn new cooking skills, watch YouTube tutorials.
- Use social media to get healthy recipe ideas. Follow food bloggers, or find inspiration on Pinterest.
- Use calorie-tracking websites or apps. These help record not only your total calorie intake, but also the amount of sodium or other nutrients.
- Cook with meal kits. These services ship ready-to-make recipes with pre-measured ingredients to your door each week. Some companies offer heart-healthy options with less sodium.
Stop Smoking for Heart Health
Smoking cigarettes increases a person's risk for heart disease and stroke. Researchers have found a dose-response relationship between smoking and disease, which means that the more years a person smokes, the higher their risk of disease gets. Fortunately, it's never too late to try to quit – your risk of cardiovascular disease drops as soon as you give up cigarettes.
How to Break the Habit
If you're struggling to quit smoking, you're not alone! Studies show that the majority of smokers want to quit, but only 7.5% of people succeed each year. One of the reasons for this is that many people experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, depression, irritability, and cravings when they try to quit.
Some of the most effective methods for quitting smoking include going to individual or group counseling and using nicotine replacement products or other medications. Additionally, while quitting altogether is the best option, reducing the amount of cigarettes you smoke may also decrease your risk of heart disease.
There are several smartphone apps that are designed to help people quit smoking. Some of these may be more effective than others. When choosing an app, look for one that has been tested in a clinical trial. Also, when searching for apps in your app store, use the term “smoking cessation.” Searching with this phrase is more likely to provide apps that are backed by science, as opposed to searching “quit smoking” or “stop smoking.”
Get a Good Nights' Sleep
Sleep allows your body to repair and recharge. When you sleep around 6-8 hours each night, your risk of cardiovascular disease and even death goes down. Getting enough shut-eye will also promote a healthy weight and blood pressure levels.
To get better sleep, try some of these tips:
- Stick to a schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
- Use an app to help get good rest. Some apps will remind you when it's time to go to bed, or wake you up at the right point in your sleep cycle.
- Get a fitness tracking device or smartwatch that can monitor and provide feedback about your sleep.
- Keep your bedroom dark and quiet. Cover windows with heavy curtains, and try to make sure doors and windows have tight seals.
- Use a white noise machine to listen to calming sounds as you fall asleep. Or, use a music streaming service to play white noise albums.
- If you consistently have sleep problems, see a doctor. Some people have disorders such as sleep apnea that should be treated to bring better health.
Learn How to Better Manage Stress
Stress can directly lead to health issues, but may also lead someone to adopt unhealthy ways of managing stress, such as drinking, smoking, or overeating, that can lead to further problems.
The American Heart Association has said that meditation may help lower people's risk of cardiovascular disease when combined with other treatments. Meditation and yoga may also help people quit smoking, which lowers heart disease risk. There are several meditation apps available that teach beginners the basics and guide people through a meditation session. Additionally, there are many channels on YouTube dedicated to meditation and yoga. These may help someone learn better stress-coping techniques.
The Future of Technology and Cardiovascular Health
One change that we may see in the near future is more widespread use of telehealth and telemedicine programs. While some of these programs have existed for decades, and many studies have shown that they can be useful in improving health, not many doctors' offices or hospitals had previously adopted these programs. However, much of this has changed in the wake of COVID-19. Regulations surrounding telehealth have recently changed, making it easier for doctors to provide virtual services.
Telehealth may make it easier for patients worried about heart disease to receive quality care. People can potentially use these programs to talk to their doctor about heart health or receive mental health counseling. Additionally, several recent studies have shown that telehealth programs can help people quit smoking, and recently, the Ontario Ministry of Health adopted a telehealth program to help people stop using cigarettes. People may have access to a wider range of virtual health services in the near future.
If you're worried about heart disease, work with your doctor to figure out a good plan for reducing your risk. Get your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels checked regularly during physical exams. If you've had trouble adopting healthy habits in the past, know that there are many new tools that you can use that might better fit your lifestyle and lead to improved cardiovascular health.