Cardiologists are experts at keeping their patients’ hearts healthy. But how do they make sure their own hearts beat true? We asked Mark Villalon, MD, an interventional cardiologist at St. Joseph Health Medical Group and Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, to share some personal pro tips for cardiovascular health. Here are five of Dr. Villalon’s heart-healthy habits:
1. Start the day with leafy green vegetables. “Most Americans only eat vegetables one time a day, typically with dinner,” says Dr. Villalon. “Dark leafy greens usually aren’t on the breakfast menu, so I find ways to incorporate them into my morning meal. I’ll add a handful of spinach to scrambled eggs or pile them on top of a breakfast sandwich.” Spinach is high in folate, vitamin C, and beta carotene, all of which contribute to heart health. Like spinach, kale is a dark leafy green that can reduce cholesterol. “When I’m in the mood for a breakfast smoothie, I’ll get a green one with kale and apple,” Dr. Villalon says.
2. Set exercise reminders. A doctor puts in a full day every day. Between seeing patients, studying and meetings, it can be easy to forget to take an exercise break. “It’s important for everyone who works at a desk to get up and move every hour or two,” says Dr. Villalon. “Doctors spend a lot of time sitting at the computer, so I set an alarm or leave myself a note to break me out of my concentration and remind me to stretch or take a lap around the building. When I have some time between patients, I’ll use part of that time to go for a walk. If you have a Fitbit or a smartphone, it’s easy to build a schedule to help you get in more steps each day.”
3. Swap less-healthy fats for healthier fats. “If I’m having a salad for lunch, dressing is definitely on the side,” says Dr. Villalon. A few tablespoons of rice wine vinegar or balsamic vinaigrette with olive oil are a good choice. Olive oil contains desirable monounsaturated fats that lower “bad” cholesterol, unlike creamy dressings laden with saturated fat (like blue cheese) or polyunsaturated fat (like ranch). “If it’s a meal-in-a-bowl salad that has chicken or other flavorful ingredients, sometimes I don’t need any dressing at all,” Dr. Villalon says. “Instead of having margarine on bread, I’ll spread unsalted nut butters or avocado for a serving of monounsaturated fats.”
4. Turn down the tension. Unmanaged stress—especially if it’s a constant part of your life-- is a risk factor for heart disease, as it elevates stress hormones like cortisol and is linked to other risk factors like high blood pressure and overeating. The demands of being a cardiologist make it all the more important for Dr. Villalon to find ways to manage stress. “I pay attention to my mindset throughout the day,” he says. “When I find my stress levels rising, I’ll take several slow, deep breaths and visualize positive results for the work at hand. This keeps me relaxed and focused. When I get home, I decompress by enjoying quality time with my family.” Stress reduction can be as simple as researching and choosing among the many popular stress relief techniques, or finding an enjoyable activity that suits your personal taste.
5. Stick to a doctor-recommended screening schedule. Preventive screenings are an essential part of heart health. Dr. Villalon says, “Cardiologists are skilled at treating heart conditions, but we want to help our patients avert heart problems before they get sick. It’s important to partner with a trusted primary care provider to detect potential cardiovascular issues as early as possible. Blood panels and other exams create a crucial track record that help physicians determine how your heart--and the rest of your body--is doing. My family gets every checkup on schedule as our doctors recommend, as part of an overall preventive health plan.”
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.