The first thing most people turn their attention to when trying to be healthier is almost always diet, followed closely by exercise. Think about it: New Year’s resolutions typically involve giving up sweets, eating more veggies, or joining a gym.
That’s all great, but there might be an even more important component, according to health and fitness expert Bob Harper, who survived an unexpected heart attack in February 2017. (Here’s the surprising heart attack symptoms Bob Harper ignored.) His key to post-heart attack health? Stress management.
Harper has teamed up with the awareness and advocacy cause Survivors Have Heart (supported by AstraZeneca), which helps educate other heart attack survivors on the importance of staying committed to the treatment prescribed by their doctor. Harper believes managing stress may make these treatments more effective.
“If you are managing your stress, you’re going to be more likely to make better food choices,” says Harper. “You’re going to find time to work out in your day. Your sleep is going to be sound.”
Stress can wreak havoc on health from two angles. First, it can directly affect heart health by consistently spiking cortisol and adrenaline levels, which increases heart rate and blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association. That’s usually temporary and no big deal, but chronic stress may put too much stress on heart health over time.
Stress affects heart health indirectly, too. “[If] you don’t manage your stress, everything else will fall apart like a house of cards,” says Harper. Stress can also affect your management of diabetes and other conditions related to your cardiovascular health.
Stress can affect our choices in more subtle ways. Let’s be real: When you’ve worked two hours later than usual to hit a deadline, are you more or less likely to hit up the drive-through on your way home or treat yourself to an extra scoop of Rocky Road after dinner? The link between stress and eating habits is no secret. Under stress, people tend to eat a greater volume of food and choose “comfort foods” that are high in calories, sugar, and fat, according to a 2013 study from the Yale University School of Medicine.
To manage his stress (and help prevent future cardiac events or complications), Harper now uses transcendental meditation twice a day and yoga. (Here’s a 3-minute guided meditation anyone can do and a 10-minute yoga routine to soothe stress at home.) In fact, the word “yoga” in Sanskrit translates to “union” because yoga is designed to unite your mind, body, and breath, which can help you focus on the present instead of worrying about the future or regretting the past. Learn more benefits of yoga here.
Another component to Harper’s stress management: his support system. “I had to rely on the support I got from my doctors [and] the support I got from my friends and family,” says Harper. “I also have two dogs that are really there for me emotionally.” (Learn all the ways pets can benefit your health here.)
“I know how precious this life is,” says Harper. “I’m not going to stress on the big things; I’m not going to stress on the small things. I would tell a heart attack survivor, ‘Whatever it is that can make you just stop for a minute and breathe and relax, I’m all for it.’”