Winter isn't going away any time soon, so Valentine's Day is a welcome day of celebration, a reason for us to cuddle up, appreciate loved ones, and warm the cockles of our hearts. And speaking of hearts, it turns out that Valentine's Day provides us with quite a few opportunities to take care of our tickers.
While we exchange cards and balloons with love hearts, it seems like an appropriate time to think of our own heart health and that of our nearest and dearest. Cardiologists in the Bronx are constantly fighting a battle to raise awareness of the problem of heart disease in our borough. It's a leading cause of premature death, and statistics for heart disease in the Bronx are consistently worse than the national and state averages.1
So, let's take a look at what we can do to really help our hearts this Valentine's Day.
1. Choc full of goodness
It turns out that cocoa contains "flavonoids" – antioxidants that protect the body against free radicals. Some studies suggest that free radicals can damage arteries and lead to a build-up of plaque on the walls of our blood vessels. A 2017 study concluded that when eaten with almonds, cocoa and dark chocolate lower bad cholesterol and may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.2
However, not all chocolate is equal – when it comes to flavonoids, the darker the chocolate, the better. In order to have an effect, it's important that the chocolate you're eating should contain a good proportion of cocoa solids, not just cocoa butter – ideally anything above 75% cocoa.3 That takes white and milk chocolate off the table.
Another important consideration: Don't eat the whole box in one go! This isn't a ticket to eat as much chocolate as you can. Chocolate is still high in sugar and fat, so you've got to enjoy it in moderation. Why not indulge in more expensive chocolate? That way, you'll be less inclined to eat the whole lot right away.4
2. Keep them on their toes
Chocolates are an easy go-to gift; why be so predictable? Novelty increases dopamine, which ignites passion in a romantic partnership.5 Take the opportunity to really surprise your loved one with a day out trying a new activity. Need some ideas? Get close with a dance class, hold hands at the ice rink, or how about wrapping up warm and going sledding in Crotona Park? All these activities can help you to prevent needing a not-so-romantic trip to doctors in the Bronx to assess your heart. Keeping active is great for your heart health and also helps to keep your body weight in check.
3. Wine and dine the healthy way
Rather than forking over for an expensive dinner, a lovingly made home-cooked meal is not only a heartfelt gesture, it's most likely the healthier option for your heart too. When you eat out, you're not in control of how much fat, salt, and sugar goes into your dish. Cook from scratch and use a small amount of vegetable oils such as olive oil, canola oil, or sesame oil. Be careful though – one tablespoon of oil contains around 120 calories.6
What better way to accompany your meal than with a hearty glass of red wine? Our friends, the flavonoids, are back again: The grape skins used to produce red wine are rich in these antioxidants. There's also some evidence to suggest that the blood-thinning effect of alcohol may help prevent heart disease. However, since alcohol also produces free radicals, you'll only benefit if you drink specifically red wine, and even then, only a small amount.7,8
4. Take a lovers' stroll together
Who said Valentine's Day has to cost a fortune? As far as activities go, you could do a lot worse than a romantic stroll in the park. Wrap up warm, head out in the fresh air, and escape all the distractions at home. Put your smartphones on silent, but you might want to use a health app to track how many steps you've taken together.
Anthony L. Komaroff, Editor in Chief of Harvard Health Letter, recommends taking 7,500 steps a day. Referring to a study that compared groups with different levels of activity, Komaroff explains that more is unnecessary: "Above 7,500 steps, there was not a clear additional benefit. Also, the vigorousness of the steps (like how fast one walked) did not seem to bring additional benefits."9 That is, of course, unless you are trying to burn extra calories.
5. Feel the love
That warm feeling you get from a long embrace with a loved one, or holding hands in the cinema, is backed by science, and what's more, it's great for your heart.
Studies have shown that human touch increases oxytocin levels, which in turn lowers blood pressure and other indicators associated with stress and anxiety. Since high blood pressure, stress, and anxiety are all risk factors for heart disease, it would appear that this study demonstrates the real power of love.10
From the bottom of our hearts, have a great Valentine's Day.
2 Lee, Y et al. "Effects of Dark Chocolate and Almonds on Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Overweight and Obese Individuals: A Randomized Controlled-Feeding Trial" (2017) Journal of the American Heart Association. ;6:e005162. Retrieved from: https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/JAHA.116.005162 Jan. 20.
8 WebMD, "Valentine's Day: Good for the Heart" (2004)