For many of us, the beginning of winter ushers in a time of joy. The crisp, cool air brings with it holiday celebrations and family gatherings. For some, however, the winter brings with it something much less joyful: an increased risk of health problems. Heart attacks, strokes and hospital admissions for heart failure all increase in frequency between November and January. In some places, the number of patients dying from heart attacks can increase by as much as 33 percent during this time.
Many factors contribute to this increase in risk. Some are out of our control, but there are things we can do to take control of our heart health. By paying close attention to how our habits change during this time of year, we can help protect ourselves from some of the perils of the season.
Here are some tips for staying in balance and avoiding heart trouble this winter:
1. Stick to your diet when possible.
Whether it’s the high-salt content in the holiday turkey, the sugar-filled cookies at office parties or the high-fat, high-carbohydrate staples of seasonal celebrations, potential excesses are everywhere this time of year. This sudden increase in salt and fat intake can trigger heart problems and can even increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
In most cases, some indulgence is okay. After all, a little excess is part of the fun. But if you know you will be attending multiple holiday parties, try to focus on fruits and non-starchy vegetables between celebrations. If indulgences are unavoidable, aim for smaller portions of each serving. Finding balance in your food and alcohol intake is always important, but it’s especially important when the opportunities to binge are so many.
2. Keep moving, even when it’s cold outside.
During the summer and fall when the weather is pleasant, many of us spend as much time outdoors as possible.But winter’s shorter days and cold temperatures mean we tend to move less and sit more. Regular exercise provides great protection for the heart, so try to find exercises that can be done indoors and that are accessible even in inclement weather. Walk in malls and museums. Do exercises in your home. The lower the barrier to exercise, the more likely you are to do it. Remember: The cardiovascular benefit of exercise starts when your heart is beating 30 percent faster than your resting rate, so a brisk walk will usually do the trick.
3. …But stay cautious, especially in snow.
Cardiologists always prepare to be busy when there is heavy snow in the forecast, because it is inevitable that people who are not used to exercising will attempt to shovel and the intense activity will precipitate a heart attack. Shoveling snow is a high-intensity activity that mixes exercise that is both aerobic (like running on a treadmill) and anaerobic (like lifting weights).
For people who are sedentary, this sudden intense activity can cause great strain on the heart. If you don’t regularly exercise, shoveling snow should not be your first return to exercise. And even for those of us who regularly exercise, it’s important to take frequent breaks while shoveling and to pay attention to signs from your body that you have had enough.
4. Watch your stress levels.
Whether you’replanning a celebration, preparing for the end of the year at work or engaging in a debate at the family dinner table, the holiday season can bring with it plenty of increased stress. For those at risk of heart disease, these emotional stresses can be associated with a higher risk of heart attacks and other cardiac conditions. Of course, altogether removing the stress is impossible but it’s important to recognize when your adrenaline is surging or when you are starting to feel a bit low. When you start feeling stress, lean on your support network or reach out to your doctor to get help—it may save your life.
Of course, every person and every clinical situation is different, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about your situation and how it relates to your lifestyle in the winter. Focusing on balance and trying to maintain a healthy routine during the winter can help ensure that you and your family have a happy and healthy holiday season.
Ameya Kulkarni, MD, is a board-certified interventional cardiologist with the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group in the Washington, D.C., area. He serves as the group’s assistant chief of cardiology for the Northern Virginia service area and is co-director of the Louise Olmstead Sands Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory at Virginia Hospital Center. Dr. Kulkarni has strong interests in the application of technology to medicine and treating adults with congenital and structural heart disease. He sees patients in the Kaiser Permanente Tysons Corner Medical Center in McLean.