Your Heart and Your Bottom Dollar

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you might be aware that two well-known fifty year old men passed away this past week.

Michael Jackson got most of the media coverage – and for good reason. He recorded the best-selling pop music album of all time and virtually everyone can recognize the beat of many of his songs. He was simply an amazing performer – here’s my favorite example, actually:

However, I was more shocked and psychically bothered by the passing of Billy Mays. If you don’t know him, he was the ubiquitous television pitch man for a huge diversity of products – most notably OxyClean. His beard, friendly demeanor, pure skill at promoting products, and often nearly over-the-top enthusiasm made him memorable:

Both of these men were fifty years old when they passed away.

Both of these men died of sudden cardiac arrest, a common outcome of heart disease.

Those facts together shook me quite a bit. Fifty years old? I’m thirty – twenty years away from that magic number. Both of my kids would merely be college age when I’m fifty. I have many things that I want to do in life, and the thought that my life could easily end – or my quality of life could rapidly fall – at such an early age made me think quite a bit about the future – and other things I can do now to protect it.

I’ve invested quite a bit of time and energy in my own life – and I’m sure you have in your own – building the foundation for a great later life. My retirement accounts are solid. I have a book in print that pays me royalties and another one on the way. I want to be able to enjoy the benefits of these things in my golden years as I play with my grandchildren. I want to protect my investment.

So I’ve decided to do something about it. For my family, for my health, for my finances, and for my long term future, I’m going to make a number of changes that directly reduce the chances of heart disease – and also help with preventing other diseases, such as type 2 diabetes.

I should note that I’ve already been doing these things in 2009. I made a resolution to improve my health and I’ve lost about forty pounds this year through a mix of more exercise and better eating and I hope to keep up the progress.

I simply started by asking my doctor what I could do to reduce my chances of heart disease as I grow older. He suggested eight things, all of them pretty simple.

Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease

1. Don’t smoke

Nicotine raises your blood pressure (not good) and the tar reduces your lung capacity and makes exercise more difficult (not good). It also increases your risk of many other diseases, like emphysema.

2. Exercise

If you don’t exercise at all, start really slow. Make a commitment to just walk for thirty minutes each evening around your neighborhood. The goal is to raise your heart rate to a reasonably elevated level for a sustained period, and continuous movement (like walking) is an easy way to get there. If you want to go beyond that, that’s great, but take it slow – don’t dive in and try to run a 5K right off the bat. Just go for a walk.

3. Eat more green things

Eat broccoli, spinach, brussels sprouts, and leafy vegetables. You can start by having a side salad with dinner. I’ve found that spinach is a great ingredient in many, many dishes, for example – just add a bunch of spinach to lasagna, for example.

4. Eat fewer meats

Going vegetarian isn’t necessarily the best option, but reducing your meat intake is a good idea. For example, try eating no meats until your last meal of the day – for breakfast and lunch, eat vegetables and fruits and whole grains.

5. Eat some nuts

Seriously. Nuts contain fiber and also contain vitamin E, one vitamin that tends to be deficient in modern diets. One great way to do three, four, and five all at once is to make your own granola bars – something I’ll talk about in the future.

6. Cut down on your sodium intake

In other words, don’t dump table salt on your foods. Sodium directly raises blood pressure and we already get enough sodium in our normal foods without extra salting.

7. Try meditation or relaxation techniques

Stress elevates your blood pressure and causes all kinds of health issues. Take some time to calm down and psychologically deal with the stresses in your life. Here are some great beginning meditation and stress management techniques.

8. Cut down on your caffeine

Caffeine also raises blood pressure. Many people say they can’t “live” without the caffeine, but coupling caffeine reduction with other diet improvements and a bit of exercise will make the transition easier.

Most of these changes are not very hard to do in your life. As with any behavior change, take it slow. Don’t go whole hog at first. Just start walking in the evening (I do it while listening to podcasts) and maybe substitute a food or two that you eat for something better for you, particularly at dinner. Put the salt shaker in the cupboard and put out granola bars and fruits for snacks instead of cookies.

It’s simple to protect your life’s investment with a few little changes. Today’s the day to get started.

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