February is national heart health month, a campaign designed to bring awareness to the habits and behaviors necessary to foster and maintain cardiovascular wellness. You have probably seen a number of post or articles this month from various sources telling you to make sure to get 20 minutes of exercises at least 3 times a week (“exercise” defined as activities that increase heart rate for a period of time) or detailing the benefits of strength/resistance training on heart health. All of these things are true and the intention of this information to to provide simple and actionable information to increase your longevity.
The problem with simple approaches is they sometimes leave things out. The simple path can often omit large pieces of the puzzle and leave us with an incomplete understanding of the bigger picture.
When discussing Heart Health one thing that is almost always left off the table is mental well-being. Sure we talk about “stress” and lowing stress is good for your heart but the actions steps toward this endeavor tend to be less actionable and more ambiguous.
In short your mental state has a massive effect on your physical being. We find ourselves in a wold filled with constant stimulation which has been shown time and time again in various studies to stimulate with is called the Sympathetic Nervous System. This none more simply is our “flight or fight response”.
Imagine you are in a room and the fire alarm goes off, this is in essence what it feels like with your sympathetic nervous system kicks in. That rush of adrenaline and extreme focus scanning your environment for danger and assessing the situation. Once the fire alarm goes off everything returns to normal and you begin to feel more relaxed and at ease, this is called your parasympathetic response (the switch that gets your mind and body back into the rest and digest state). What if the fire alarm never goes off? Have you every been in a room with an alarm was going off for far too long, what did that feel like. Notice how you were extremely stressed, agitated and angry?
Our constant stimulation through artificial lights and electronic devices has show to not allow our body to switch out of the sympathetic response, keeping our minds in a steady state of low grade emergency mode. What do you thinks this is doing to your heart?
Hearts like all muscles need to rest, when it is living at the red alert state is never gets to, like any machine parts that don’t get to rest burn out.
So if you are a hard working individual, goal driven professional, athlete, weekend warrior or simply have a stressful job day maybe adding more stress through exercise is not what your heart needs to be healthy. Maybe it’s time to pump the breaks a bit and gets some recovery but flipping the rest and digest switch. How do we do that?
Yoga, foam rolling, massage, increased sleep, less screen time, reading, meditation are some of my favorite methods. All are readily available and a few are free or very low cost. If this is a foreign subject to you it’s ok to get help. I took me a long time working with some really great Yoga teachers for me to finally learn to let go and teach me how to implement some of the yoga principles into my daily life.
Remember the pendulum always has to swing both ways, if you find yourself stuck on one side perhaps its time to find a plan and some guidance to bring things back toward the middle (it can be a really nice place to live 😉