Get Real: Reality TV Habits That Can Lead To Heart Disease

Whether it’s a race around the world, an exercise in living with strangers or a desperate (and let’s face it, unseemly) attempt to pair off on a deserted island, reality shows capture our attention. If you watch reality shows, and statistics suggest you probably do, you might identify with the common personality types and the attributes that put them at risk for heart problems. See if you recognize any of these personalities from your own life—and learn what you and your loved ones can do to help improve their heart health.

RISKY BEHAVIORS: Smoking and excessive drinking.

THE SITUATION: According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, cigarette smoking causes one in five deaths. When you smoke cigarettes, chemicals enter your bloodstream and damage cells, blood vessels and the heart itself. “Smoking is the worst thing you can do for your heart,” says Richard H. Carmona, M.D., a former U.S. Surgeon General and an advisory board member of the educational program “Time to Talk CARDIO.”
And while the occasional beer or glass of wine in the evenings isn’t a threat, excessive drinking is.

STEPS YOU CAN TAKE: If you are a bit of a partier, the most important thing you can do is quit smoking. Your doctor can help you through the process or recommend resources. If drinking is about socializing with friends, try to find other ways to engage, such as meeting for coffee or lunch—or even at the racquetball court—to help minimize the urge to drink and maybe even do something healthy instead.

RISKY BEHAVIORS: Poor eating habits, lack of physical activity.

THE SITUATION: An increase in unhealthy eating habits and a decline in physical activity in the U.S. have contributed directly to the rise in obesity. And obesity is a key risk factor in heart disease and other health conditions. “We believe, and our data indicates, that only half a percent of Americans are actually following our [heart-healthy] diet,” says Ralph Sacco, M.D., immediate past president of the American Heart Association.

STEPS YOU CAN TAKE: The American Heart Association recommends a diet that includes plenty of vegetables and fruit, fiber-rich whole-grain foods, fish twice a week and lean meats. Plus, reducing your intake of saturated and trans fats, cholesterol and added sugars will make a big difference. In addition, strive for less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol and less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium each day. And make sure you’re exercising enough: at least 150 minutes per week. Just 30 minutes a day, five days a week is all it takes to get started on the road to better health.

RISKY BEHAVIOR: Ignoring doctor’s orders or not going to the doctor at all.

THE SITUATION: Without knowing your current numbers, you won’t know your heart-health risk, and you won’t know what actions are necessary. “The three numbers we want people to know and control are blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol,” Sacco says. “The first step [toward heart health] is identification of where people are in terms of ideal cardiovascular health.” The next step is following your doctor’s orders, be it a lifestyle change or a medication prescription.

STEPS YOU CAN TAKE: First, if you haven’t been to the doctor in a while, check the ’tude at the door, and make an appointment for a physical. Then, make sure you ask questions and understand your health risks. Ask about blood test results, your individual risk and any preventive steps you should take.

RISKY BEHAVIORS: Blaming poor health on genetics and failing to see the impact of one’s own choices.

THE SITUATION: “For cardiovascular disease and stroke, genetics is important, but it
doesn’t account for the majority of the risk,” Sacco says.

STEPS YOU CAN TAKE: Are you guilty of blaming your parents for your bad cholesterol levels? Rather than pointing fingers, take charge. “If your grandfather died in his 50s, you know you need to do something about your heart health,” says Gordon A. Ewy, M.D., who has been recognized as a “CPR Giant” by the American Heart Association for his work in CPR and defibrillation. Even if your family history is working against you, you can take steps to reduce your risk. By getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean meats, you can make a difference.

RISKY BEHAVIORS: Not recognizing her own risk and failing to put herself first.

THE SITUATION: For a lot of women, their own health takes a back seat to jobs, families and other commitments. Whether it’s packing lunches, chauffeuring young children to soccer practice or caring for ailing parents, a woman’s work is never done. But a lot of women don’t realize their own heart risk. The bottom line is that more women than men die of heart disease in the U.S.

STEPS YOU CAN TAKE: Recognize your risk. Heart disease is the leading cause of death of American women (and men, too). Women need to make sure they take time for themselves—time to see their physician and to exercise, for example. Get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked, and if you have risk factors, address them early. Although you may have responsibilities for your family and your job, you also have a duty to eat right, exercise and take care of yourself. “The greatest asset any of us has is our health, and we take it for granted,” Carmona says. “Each of us should have a goal of pursuing optimal health.”

RISKY BEHAVIOR: Takes on too much—with stress as the result.

THE SITUATION: “There are indirect relationships between heart disease and stress,” Sacco says. When you’re stressed, he explains, your pulse and blood pressure increase, and many people find themselves nibbling on unhealthy snacks to cope.

STEPS YOU CAN TAKE: “The first step is to recognize that stress is linked to your health,” Carmona says. “And understand what your stressors are.” Then, you can work toward avoiding major stressors and learning how to cope. If you can’t eliminate the stress in your life, find healthy ways of dealing with it, such as exercise, yoga, meditation or talking with a friend. “Sometimes it might also involve talking to a professional,” Carmona says.

RISKY BEHAVIOR: Feeling invincible.

THE SITUATION: “When you’re in your 20s and 30s, you think you’re going to live forever,” Ewy says. “The last thing you worry about is your health.” The main problem that needs to be addressed, he explains, is obesity. “The number of extremely obese people is really striking,” he says. And now is the time to take care of it. “When you gain weight in your 20s, it gets harder to take it off in your 40s and 50s,” Sacco says.

STEPS YOU CAN TAKE: “It’s never too early to start changing your behavior,” Sacco says. “The things you do in your 20s definitely have an impact by your 50s and 60s. We want people to start as early as possible.” The sooner you stop smoking, for example, the greater your chance of living longer. Likewise, Sacco says, now is the time to make physical activity a regular part of your day to ensure you maintain a lifelong healthy weight.

Consult the Heart-Health Experts
To learn about the cardiology services provided at Gwinnett Medical Center, visit


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