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A Healthy Heart the Devil is in the Details

Talk heart health and preventing disease and the first things that come to mind are a bland diet and regimented exercise.

The next thing that comes to mind is a course of drug treatment for colesterol and/or high blood pressure.

Well the meatless meals, the days in the gym and taking Toprol, Cardura or any other number of drugs each day isn't all there is to it.

Part of a healthy heart is being happy, and the stress of everyday life can affect the heart as much as a rib eye.

With the idea that getting heart-healthy is a big chore, it's no wonder that so many people dread making changes to their diets or lifestyle.

But ideas about a healthy heart is changing daily. A growing body of research indicates that improving cardiovascular health goes beyond watching fatty foods and jumping on the treadmill. In fact it appears it's actually enjoying the fun things in life and slowing down the pace that can offer measured results in improved health.

For those that want to lower blood pressure, fight atherosclerosis (plaque-lined arteries), and reduce their odds for a fatal heart attack, consider some of these heart-friendly ideas.

•Learn to relax on the weekends. Don't be like the nearly 75 percent of Americans employed in large companies who admittedly work on the weekends. Spend all of the weekend putting rest and relaxation at the top of a to-do list.

But even if you're not working, if you're stressing out about getting all of the laundry done or running errands on the weekend as well, you're still doing potential damage to your health.

•Have some doggone fun. Studies indicate that having a pet can lower blood pressure and help you deal with stress better. A study of 48 New York stock brokers who took drugs for high blood pressure found that those who got a cat or dog reduced the size of stress-related spikes in their blood pressure readings. Despite extra housekeeping detail, pets are good to have around.

However, make sure when selecting a pet it is the right one for you. The wrong pet choice can lead to more stress in life rather than less.

•Reconnect with a friend. "Socially isolated people are more at risk for cardiovascular disease," offers researcher Eric B. Loucks, PhD, an instructor at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. "So pick up the phone and get in touch with that close friend who may have drifted out of your life." Having someone to confide in can considerably reduce stress levels.

•Stick to a 40-hour work week as much as possible. Long work hours can raise the chances for high blood pressure and stress-related heart problems, say experts. Therefore, make it a habit to punch out when the clock indicates it is the end of the work day. More time spent behind a desk reduces the opportunity for heart-healthy walks, exercise, sleeping, and simply doing nothing but lounging around at home.

•Go on vacation. With higher gas prices this may not be as realistic as it once was, but it is still a good idea to get away from work periodically, no matter if you enjoy what you do or not.

Many Americans give up vacation time, whether they feel pressured to stay in the office or think that it will get them ahead at work. They gave up 574 million vacation days worth $75.72 billion in 2006, a 36 percent increase from 2005, a study by Expedia, Orbitz and the Travel Industry Association of America revealed.

And when workers do go on vacation, many feel tethered to their offices, frequently checking e-mail or taking phone calls. Time away - real time away - allows you to operate at a slower pace and can be beneficial to heart health.

Also, on vacation people tend to be more physically active while taking in the sights, which is always a plus for cardiovascular health.

On the other side of the coin however, some stress can be good too.

People often talk about cutting stress completely out of their lives (best-case scenario) or reducing it to a degree (realistic scenario). But some experts are saying stress in low doses actually can be a good thing.

Stress produces a boost of energy for the body. Think about a deadline looming or the first few moments before a potential accident. When the brain gets clued into these situations - physical or psychological stress - it triggers the heart to start pumping faster, sharpens senses, and produces a rise in glucose throughout the body. The chemicals cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine also start racing through the body. These short-term bursts of stress can help a person perform better and more efficiently. They may also improve memory.

Recognizing good stress is achieved by examining your feelings after the stressful event. Do you feel a sense of accomplishment or excitement? This is a good stress. If you're feeling completely overwhelmed, it's bad stress.

Good stress actually stimulates the body and can be an immune system booster, experts say. It helps improve heart function and can make you more resistant to infection.

Studies into good stress have provided interesting results. In some circles it is believed that good short-term stress benefits memory function and can help protect against diseases like Alzheimer's. Other investigations reveal that good stress may staunch estrogen production, thus helping to prevent breast cancer.

Doctors and scientists indicate that when stress continues longer than 24 hours and is chronic, all of the good benefits to stress can sour. If the body is overrun by these flight-or-fight hormones too long, consequences such as high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, and fatigue can occur.

For many people it's difficult to dial-down stress when it is happening. So, what started out as minor stress can escalate and produce the negative health effects. Doctors indicate there are certain signs that stress may be wreaking havoc on the immune system including mental fogginess, frequent colds, increased sensitivity to aches and pains and flare ups of autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis or psoriasis.

If small levels of stress are a good thing, it's important to condition yourself to react to stress differently.

First, hink optimistically. Try to focus on the positive aspects of a situation that is proving stressful, including that the end will come. An optimistic outlook can help you feel more in control.

Then learn ways to unwind. Meditate, exercise, take up a hobby, do whatever you can to find a healthy outlet for stress.

Another good move is to check perfectionism at the door. Striving to always be perfect or expecting it from others is unrealistic. Know what you can and cannot handle.

And if things seem a little beyond your ability, ask for help. Don't sit and simmer or stress about it.

Relaxation, lowering levels of stress to a healthy level, finding a healthy lifestyle that fits and eating right will often lead to a much longer life and one that you will feel better about too.

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