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Healthy Changes for Heart Month
From My Heart to Yours: Heart disease is the number one killer in the U.S. Please consider renewing your commitment to heart-healthy habits for month one and beyond.
Knowing that heart disease affects so many people in the US, I’m sure many of you can relate to my story. My father had heart disease since I was three years old and I died as a result just ten years later. A favorite uncle followed, and then another uncle (my uncles). My mom had a heart attack at age 80, which was the beginning of her declining health. Then recently, I have been dealing with heart arrhythmia myself. I was lucky to have great care at Cleveland Clinic where the ablation procedure cured my symptoms – but I was still careful to follow lifestyle habits to avoid future issues.
I’m also hitting an important birthday this month, and my health is at the center of my thoughts. I honestly can’t do anything about genetics or age as risk factors, but there’s a lot I can do! Just because I’m a registered dietitian, doesn’t mean I’m immune to health issues – or bad habits for that matter! The last few years have been a challenge between caring for our elderly parents and recovering from my heart problem. But now that things have calmed down a bit, I have decided to make some more mental health changes. For me, it’s not all about losing weight; it’s about being healthy and having more energy to do the things I want to do. I’ve been doing most of the steps outlined below, and now I’ve incorporated more of them into my regular routine. The steps are in no particular order. Don’t worry about making all the changes at once – just pick a step you believe you can stick with, and go from there.
A few important things: If you smoke, stop! Find a good plan for quitting smoking. Know your numbers: Manage your weight, cholesterol, LDL, as well as hypertension and blood glucose if you have diabetes. Find a way to stay active. Follow a plant-based diet, and follow doctor’s orders for prescription medications. Some of the steps below can help you get started.
Step 1: Increase your physical activity! Exercise lowers blood pressure, strengthens your heart, helps maintain lean body mass, burns calories, and makes you feel good! Walking is one of the easiest exercises to fit into your day. Experts encourage at least 10,000 steps a day (equivalent to 5 miles) – and yes, it is possible to fit this into a busy schedule. If you’re just starting out, walk for at least 10 minutes at a time. Gradually work your way to at least 60 minutes on most days to meet the recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
Before making changes to your routine, check with your doctor. Once you get OK, use a fitness tracker or pedometer to count the current number of steps you take each day to use as your starting point. I have worn a pedometer or Fitbit for over 10 years to help me stay on target. I love the feature on my Fitbit that reminds me to take at least 250 steps every hour! I don’t sit at my computer working for hours on end without moving.
Step 2: Cut back on high calorie drinks. Do you drink sugary drinks every day? Just 8 ounces of most sugary drinks packs 100 calories, and most people don’t stop at 8 ounces. An extra 100 calories a day adds up to 3500 extra calories in just 5 weeks – which can mean an extra pound of weight – or 10 extra pounds in a year!
What about alcohol? Has a “healthy” 100 calorie daily glass of wine turned into two or more glasses a day? Alcohol calories go down quickly, and they can also reduce your ability to control your food intake.
Eliminate sugary drinks and alcohol for at least 30 days to break the habit. Replace them with unsweetened beverages such as water, sparkling water, sparkling water (lemon, lime, cucumber or fruit), hot tea or ice.
Step 3: Trim the saturated fat. The animal fats found in meats, poultry, full-fat dairy products (milk, cheese, sour cream, yogurt, etc.), salad dressings, and fried foods are full of saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease. Reduce portions, trim visible fat from meat, remove the skin from chicken, prepare foods using low-fat cooking methods (baking, broiling, frying), and read labels to identify foods with polyunsaturated or saturated fat. monounsaturated for better health. Skim or 1% milk, low-fat and full-fat cheese, low-fat yogurt, and other low-fat dairy options are available – and many of them taste good!
Ready to use spray cans of healthy oils found at the grocery store can help control the amount of fat you use. Choose healthy corn, safflower or olive oil to spray on foods so you can bake instead of frying or brushing foods with oil.
Step 4: Eat your vegetables and fruits! Eat different colors: green, red, orange, yellow vegetables and fruits contain essential nutrients and fiber for good health. These foods contain vitamins C, A, potassium, antioxidants, phytochemicals; and is naturally low in fat and sodium.
Fill at least half of your plate with vegetables, and reach for fresh fruit for dessert or snacks.
Step 5: Reduce the sugar. I have always had a sweet tooth, but I have cut back on sweets to improve my health and to control my weight. Most of us are consuming far more sugar than we realize. It is found in juices, jellies, jams, cookies, candies, cakes, pies, regular soda pop, cereals, snacks, condiments, and many other foods.
Start with obvious sources of sugar and switch to naturally sweet foods like fruit (fresh, canned without syrup, frozen without sugar, or dried – go play here for these are sources of calories). And don’t think that switching to raw sugar, honey or agave syrup is better – it’s still simple sugar.
Read labels: find the number of grams of sugar per serving and choose alternatives with less sugar. More caution: some studies show that even sweet foods and artificial drinks can also create cravings for sweets.
Step 6: Cut sodium and increase potassium. About 1 in 3 American adults have high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, and kidney disease. A high sodium, low potassium diet is linked to high blood pressure. Sodium is abundant in our food supply. Years ago it was used to preserve foods, but today we have a taste for it and think that low sodium foods are unclean. To add some zip to your meals, replace salt and high sodium spice mixes with naturally spicy ingredients such as hot peppers or jalapeno peppers (also high in vitamins and antioxidants), and spices that are not in your favorite salt.
Remember to read labels and avoid foods and drinks that are high in sodium.
Increasing potassium in your diet can also help lower blood pressure. Bananas, oranges, potatoes with skins, and low sodium V-8 juice are some of my favorite high potassium (low sodium) sources.
Step 7: Switch to whole grains. Focus on whole grains for nutrient-dense foods that can lower blood cholesterol and improve normalcy. Whole grains are much sweeter than refined white breads, cereals, pasta, and rice.
Some of my favorite grains include steel cut oats, kamut and quinoa. I cook my whole grains in a rice cooker, Instant Pot or a crock pot so I don’t have to monitor the cooking which usually takes 45-50 minutes on the stovetop. Many whole grains can be used to make a simple, tasty salad or can be eaten as a hot breakfast with fruit and nuts.
For a quick and tasty whole grain, I like old fashioned oats cooked on high for 2 minutes in the microwave and ready to eat. Top it with some dried cranberries and walnuts to add flavor and texture. It’s quick and easy, inexpensive, tastes great, filling – and healthy too!
Step 8: Reduce stress by taking time for yourself. With a busy schedule, it’s important to take time out each day to rest, rejuvenate, and recharge! Walking is my time to take a break, get away from everyday stress and enjoy some fresh air, music, or time to talk with friends and family. Choose something every day that allows you to take time for yourself: yoga, meditation, a hot shower, or anything that helps you recharge. Allow yourself at least 10-15 minutes a day – Yes, you can!
Step 9: Add some stretching and strength training. Strength training is important for maintaining muscle mass, strength, and balance as we age. Walking helps us avoid injury and reduce pain. Strengthening your core will protect you from back pain and injuries, improve posture and help you look slimmer – and who doesn’t want that?
Step 10: Believe you can do it. It takes time to develop new healthy habits. Try something that you believe you can be successful with, and move forward from there. The most important key is to believe that you can make changes that become lifelong commitments for your health.
Best wishes for a mental-healthy future!
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