Life’s Simple 7: Key to Brain, Heart Health

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Purcell
Purcell

The American Heart Association developed the “Life’s Simple 7” program to help keep the brain and heart healthy from childhood through older adulthood. The steps are:

• Don’t start smoking, or quit if you smoke
• Manage blood pressure
• Control cholesterol
• Keep blood sugar normal
• Eat a healthy diet
• Lose extra weight
• Get physically active

The chances that you’ll develop cardiovascular disease (CVD) or experience a stroke are pretty high. According to the New York State Department of Health, “CVD accounted for nearly 40 percent of all deaths statewide in 2014.”

The Health Department also states on its website that “an estimated 7.4 percent of adults in New York state reported they have had a heart attack, angina/coronary heart disease, or stroke in 2014. One out of five (20.9 percent) New Yorkers aged 65 and older reported having some type of CVD in 2014.”

Stroke also represents a top killer. According to the American Heart Association, stroke is responsible for one out of every 20 deaths. Every four minutes, one American dies of stroke.

It’s easy to see why smoking made the list. Smoking negatively affects every cell in the body. Many people find quitting extremely difficult, but Chris Purcell, certified personal trainer, wellness coach and owner of Om Body Lifestyle in Syracuse, said that for many, finding an important reason to quit, makes a huge difference.

“When I was younger, I got my father to quit smoking so he could be around to see me grow up and see his future grandkids,” Purcell said. “I wanted him to make it.”

Physicians can help with smoking cessation, too. Patients don’t have to rely on willpower alone. Nicotine replacement therapy and medications to help suppress cravings can help, along with a good support structure.

Managing stress can help lower blood pressure, among other health benefits. Avoiding stress isn’t possible and some stress is good. Eliminating stressors that can be nixed — such as toxic relationships — and prioritizing stressors that can’t be avoided helps mitigate the damaging effects of stress.

“Define your lifestyle,” Purcell said.

He challenges clients to think about their work, values and aspirations, and then to “create your own lifestyle that’s geared toward that,” Purcell said.

Many people find that mindfulness, pursing enjoyable hobbies and exercise helps them better manage stress.

Exercise also aids in weight loss. Some people dive headfirst into a gym membership or exercise class with daily attendance, knowing they don’t like that environment for exercise. It’s little wonder many quit soon, a pattern Purcell has observed. Instead of daily grueling sessions, he wants more clients to first find how their bodies react to cardiovascular fitness.

“If you spend over an hour at a gym, you’re training for something or you’re not efficient,” he said. “You can fine tune fitness to fit into a very focused schedule to fit into your morning routine or evening routine.”

It’s OK to split sessions and make them enjoyable. Some go solo to unwind and recharge. Regardless, “you’ve got to find a way to make it fun,” Purcell said.

A vigorous hobby that elevates the heart rate for 30 minutes a few times per week can help maintain weight. Longer, more frequent or more intense sessions can help with weight loss.

Healthful diet plays a role in blood pressure control and also in controlling cholesterol, stabilizing blood sugar and weight loss. Purcell said that like exercise, it’s a matter of making it fun and easy, not restrictive.

“With some of my clients, they think they’re restricted from all their foods, but they have to learn their options,” he said.

For example, he makes sweet potato fries to replace standard French fries. Sweet potatoes are low on the glycemic index and offer beta carotene.

He’s also not afraid to order off-menu items at restaurants, such as a salad with an extra serving of meat on it to avoid simple carbohydrates.

Dischner
Dischner

Kathy Dischner, registered dietitian and nutrition issue leader for Cornell Cooperative Extension Onondaga County, said that most people can benefit dramatically by choosing better beverages.

“Rethink your drink,” she said. “Be aware of the amount of sugar and calories in alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. By switching from a sugary beverage like soda to water, you can save up to one-quarter cup of sugar and up to 150 to 200 calories per serving.”

Flavoring water with citrus fruits, cucumber slices or mint keeps water more interesting without adding calories.

She also controls portion size by using smaller dinnerware, eating slower, boxing half the entree at the restaurant and eating mindfully can help save up to 500 calories a day, on average.

“Choose a more whole food, plant-based diet,” Dischner said. “Everyone hears it, but one of the tips that goes along with it is when you eat more fruits and vegetables, you consume more water and fiber in the foods. These foods fill you up with less calories. You won’t feel deprived.”

She also advises families to cook and eat together, let children help prepare wholesome foods, and to shop the perimeter of the store to encourage lower-calorie, more healthful eating.

“Create an environment where healthier foods are easier,” Dischner said.

The My Plate (www.myplate.gov) can offer general guidelines for healthful food choices.