COVID-19 and its affiliated safety measures have increasingly shifted activities related to work, exercise, and leisure from the great outdoors and public spaces to the home —spurring the development of some not-so-heart-healthy habits such as reduction of physical activity.
Yet implementing a few simple lifestyle changes can, over time, boost heart health despite quarantine's challenges, according to Jason Hoff, an interventional cardiologist at Loma Linda University International Heart Institute in Loma Linda, California, United States.
Trends in the food industry since the virus’s outbreak testify to altered eating habits brought on by stay-at-home measures. Restaurants have adapted to in-person pickup and delivery options, and there has been a significant surge in food delivery services’ popularity nationwide. Individuals, couples, and families have resorted to rapid, convenient food delivery and ready-made meals.
There is a silver lining to be found in spending more time at home, says Hoff — more time and flexibility to make healthy meals. “This is the best time ever to take up a hobby of cooking.”
Hoff recommends aiming for a whole-plant-based diet — the best diet for the heart. The diet avoids meat, dairy, and highly processed foods in favor of grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Because many Americans are not raised eating whole-plant-based foods, making the dietary change can feel like a jarring leap, but Hoff advises taking baby steps over time to ensure long-term success.
“If you opt for a 100-percent diet and lifestyle change but have not created the structure and support to sustain that, it’s going to be very difficult, and you’ll be more prone to burn out,” he says.
As with any substantial life change, support from a spouse or buy-in from family members willing to make a change in diet is instrumental in sustained success, Hoff stresses.
Eating healthy at home, especially with a family and kids, comes down to planning and time management, he says. Some find it easier to prepare their meals for the week over a weekend, while others allocate set times to cooking meals each day.
“Typically, I tell patients to look at what they eat over the course of a week or two, pick the least healthy meal, and substitute that one first with a recipe that’s whole-plant-based,” Hoff says. “If you like it, keep it and work your way through all your dishes to make them healthier. Over time it becomes significant.”
Strong as the temptation to ditch an at-home workout may be, Hoff assures there are plenty of opportunities for you and your family members to sustain heart health. In fact, Hoff says, those working from home may benefit from more sustainable exercise by customizing their work station or daily routine to incorporate frequent movement.
Treadmills or bikes pedals placed under the desk can keep you moving throughout the workday, as well as setting up routines such as taking hourly five- to 10-minute breaks for some push-ups, jumping jacks, or other activities to get the heart pumping. If you have kids, Hoff says, simply chasing them around the yard or clearing space to wrestle and do gymnastics can offer all the “exercise” you need. These methods are ideal, says Hoff, since maintaining motion throughout the day is healthier than doing a single-session workout like a jog and then sitting the remainder of the time.
“It is so easy with streaming services and television to just plop everybody on the couch and put on a distraction, or give your kids a phone or tablet,” Hoff says. “But we need to unplug as much as possible, stay active with kids, and get outside for weekend hikes or walks around the neighborhood.”
Hoff says staying heart healthy is a balance of the whole body. Prioritize mental health by securing enough high-quality sleep and managing stress levels through physical exercise, mental meditation, and other relaxing activities, he says. Staying connected to friends and family via technology is also key to emotional health. When mental health suffers, Hoff says, physical health often follows suit.
Making any, or a combination, of these lifestyle changes is guaranteed to improve your and your loved ones’ heart health. If you’re unsure where to start, perhaps prioritize reviewing your diet for places to improve, Hoff says.
Though the ways healthy habits benefit the heart and prevent heart disease are difficult to measure, noticing the small changes — such as energy levels, mood, and changes in the skin — can offer some clues, he says.
“Everyone probably has one part that is lacking,” he says. “It takes a bit of self-analysis, but as you make the changes over time, your heart will thank you for it.”