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dear doctor

Overcoming Barriers to Good Health

A “healthy lifestyle” isn’t as time-consuming or expensive as it sounds.

Photo credit: Kate Sudar/The Well

Q: I was recently diagnosed with high blood pressure, which doesn’t surprise me because it runs in my family. As an African-American woman, I know that I have a higher risk for heart disease and stroke, and my doctor told me that in addition to taking medication, I also need to get more exercise and eat better. But that’s a lot easier said than done! I’m a single mom with two kids and two jobs. Money is tight and time is limited.  I know my doctor is right, but his suggestions seem overwhelming. What can I do?     

Sincerely,

"Struggling Single Mom"

Dear Struggling Single Mom:

It’s completely understandable that you feel overwhelmed. As a single mom raising two kids while also holding down two jobs, you’re juggling a lot more than many women. But that’s all the more reason to make your own health a priority. And the good news is that it is doable.

Luckily, your hypertension was found early, before you developed heart disease or had a stroke. And since you have a strong family history of high blood pressure, it makes sense that your doctor prescribed medication. Keep in mind that hypertension is a silent killer, which means you’re not going to feel any symptoms at all until the condition is severe. But thanks to a variety of safe and effective medications and simple lifestyle changes, heart disease and stroke can be prevented.

When it comes to lifestyle changes, I always like to remind all women that a few small, simple changes can make a big impact. For instance, there’s no need to join a gym. It’s all about adding more active minutes into your daily routine. We have evidence that shows that just walking briskly to get your heart rate up is helpful. Get an inexpensive pedometer and set a goal of walking 10,000 steps a day. At work, instead of sitting at your desk, find reasons to get up and walk around. At home, turn exercise into a family activity. Start with 10-minute walks and work your way up to 30 or 40 minutes so that you are getting at least 150 minutes of walking every week.

With food choices, focus on making sure your plate is colorful, with plenty of fresh vegetables. When you shop for groceries, try to stick to the periphery and avoid the processed foods in the middle aisles. If you can’t get fresh vegetables, choose frozen over canned, so you’re not getting the extra sodium. Limit bread and other starches, and choose multigrain or whole grain breads over white. At fast food and chain restaurants, you can usually find a healthy option on the menu, like a salad.

There are a couple of other areas that I think are truly important. The first is stress: We know that chronic stress predisposes someone to not only hypertension but many other chronic diseases, which is why finding time to de-stress is so critical. One simple thing I tell patients is just find five minutes a day when you can sit quietly and listen to your favorite music. It sounds simple, but it often has a powerful effect in terms of resetting the lens through which we view our problems. Also, if find yourself in a stressful situation, close your eyes and take two minutes to do some deep breathing. Just that simple exercise can help you feel less stressed and more in control.

The second area to focus on is sleep. We now know that the body needs seven to eight hours of sleep every night to recharge and detoxify. There’s so much evidence that not getting enough sleep can negatively affect your mood, your immune system, and many other aspects of your life. So establishing good sleep habits and making sure you’re getting enough sleep every night is important for your overall health.

If you try all of these approaches and are still having trouble incorporating a healthy lifestyle into your daily life, I encourage you to talk to your doctor. Working together, the two of you can find solutions so that you and your family can live a happy and healthy life.

“We know that chronic stress predisposes someone to not only hypertension but many other chronic diseases, which is why finding time to de-stress is so critical.”
Jennifer H. Mieres, MD
Dr. Jennifer H. Mieres, Professor of Cardiology, Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra Northwell and Senior Vice President, Center for Equity of Care Northwell Health Photo credit: The Well

Next Steps and Useful Resources

Published February 13th, 2018