All of us in the United States know that blood pressure and plaque buildup in heart arteries are very important indicators in determining the health of our hearts and circulatory system, and in gauging our risk for cardiac events such as heart attack and stroke. We know that it’s essential to keep blood pressure from getting too high, and it’s important to eat a healthy diet and exercise, to avoid buildup of plaque on arterial walls.
But more recently, health experts have discovered that the size of our stomach is also a key predictor of cardiovascular disease and risk of heart attack and stroke. So much so, that waist size is now one of three measurements that doctors use, to gauge a person’s risk of future cardiac events. The other two key measurements are blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
A person’s waist size, in fact, is a better predictor of heart disease risk than weight or even body mass index (BMI, or the estimated fat content in a person’s body, which is calculated using the person’s weight and height).
If your waist size is equal to or more than 35 inches in women, and equal to or more than 40 inches in men, it increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
To measure your waist, take a non-elastic tape, and measure around your belly button.
Doctors say even a small change in waist size in either direction makes a big difference. If a person loses even one inch off the waist, improvements are achieved in all other heart health markers. If a person gains one inch, all the numbers get worse.
Researchers in Dallas took MRI scans to measure plaque accumulation and abdominal aortic wall thickness in patients over a period of almost eight years. They found that increased wall thickness was associated with an increased risk for all types of cardiovascular complications, including fatal heart attack and stroke. An increase in both wall thickness and plaque buildup resulted in a higher risk for non-fatal events in arteries outside the heart, such as stroke.
Just like arteries that supply the heart can harden or thicken, leading to increased risk of heart attack and stroke, the abdominal aorta can accumulate plaque and thicken also, resulting in similar greater risk of cardiovascular problems.
Hardening of the arteries is called atherosclerosis, and it is caused by plaque buildup from too much cholesterol in the blood. Thickening of the arterial wall is caused by high blood pressure, which causes the muscles in the arteries to push back harder against the flow of blood. That makes the arterial wall muscles grow bigger, making the artery wall thicker.
Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise are still the two best methods for combating both excess bad cholesterol and atherosclerosis.
A healthy diet is one that:
- is low in salt and fat (limit salt/sodium intake and eat low-fat dairy products and leaner meats, including lean beef cuts, chicken and fish)
- includes multiple daily servings of vegetables and fruits (vegetables are best eaten raw or lightly steamed, to preserve more of their nutrients and fiber)
- is low in sugar (opt for raw fruit, instead of fruit juices; dilute juices with water; limit consumption of sweets)
- includes heart-healthy fats, such as those found in fish like salmon, in nuts and in seeds
- limits or avoids processed foods and artificial chemicals
Choose healthy snacks between meals, such as fruit, chopped vegetables, whole-grain crackers, low-fat yogurt or cottage cheese with chopped fruit.
As for exercise, the great thing about it is that you don’t have to work up a big sweat, to get the health benefits. Even everyday activities not normally considered exercise, such as walking and gardening, have terrific health benefits. Riding a bicycle, swimming and dancing are three other forms of exercise that are not hard on your joints and bones, but still offer great health benefits if performed regularly. Calisthenics, stretching exercises and yoga are other types of exercise that help tone you up and keep you limber, without being too taxing on your body.
Exercise should be done as often as possible, but at least several times a week, for at least 30 minutes.
If you’re trying to reduce your waist size, don’t go by weight loss, necessarily, because as you lose fat and replace it with lean muscle, your weight may actually increase a little (muscle weighs more than fat). As long as the tape measure tells you your waist is shrinking, you know you’re on your way to improved cardiovascular and overall health!
By Marc Courtiol