Q: I have a healthy diet, no history of heart disease in my family, and I am overweight but not obese—do I really need to exercise?
A: Absolutely. Being overweight (a BMI of 25.0–29.9) can have consequences, such as an increased risk of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and type II diabetes. Exercise can reduce these risks, and may improve both your current and future health by lessening the chance of complications later on.
If you didn’t start exercising, let’s imagine the worst-case scenario: You would maintain your weight eating the same amount of calories. As you aged, your biological processes would slow. Maybe you would need pain medication for arthritis from the stress extra weight puts on your joints. Your doctor might even find that you have type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that predisposes you to other conditions like cancer and heart disease. One day before you inject your insulin and prepare your dietitian-approved breakfast (but after you take your blood pressure medication, diuretic, ACE inhibitor, daily diabetic drug, osteoarthritis medication, and pain medication), you decide to sign up for weight-loss surgery. The first requirement for surgery states: Must exercise 5 times a week.
The lesson? The need to exercise catches up with everyone eventually, so starting while you are relatively healthy will benefit you the most. A great place to start is the American Heart Association’s exercise guidelines—30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity 5 times per week with weight-training at moderate- to high-intensity twice a week.
Keep in mind that anything is always better than nothing. If you can only get in 15 minutes here or there, do it anyway! If you are short on time, increase your intensity. Or you can increase the duration. Exercise is just physical activity; it doesn’t have to be a typical gym or aerobics class. Make it fun so you look forward to doing it rather than feeling that you absolutely have to.
Q: I recently read a newspaper article that chocolate is actually good for my heart. Does this mean I can eat chocolate without feeling guilty?
A: These kinds of headlines make for great conversation, but the truth is more complicated. Chocolate comes from cocoa beans, which are rich in flavonols—nutrients that protect the plant from environmental contaminants and assist in cellular repair. It appears we too can benefit from flavonols’ antioxidant properties: antioxidant intake has been linked to lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is what forms plaques on arterial walls.
In addition, flavonols have been associated with lowering blood pressure and improving circulation.
The problem is we don’t eat cocoa beans fresh out of the pod—we like them in a tasty bar or candy form! Cocoa is processed to make it more palatable, but this reduces flavonol content. While dark chocolate usually contains more flavonols than milk chocolate, it’s still not as much as the original form. Nuts, peanut butter, caramel, etc. are also often added to chocolate, contributing calories, fats, and sugars, and reducing the benefits you’re getting from the flavonols.
To get the most benefit from chocolate, stick to the following:
- Choose dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa or cacao (what the seed is called before processing)
- Choose regular over Dutch cocoa powder (which uses an alkali to neutralize acidity)
- The amount of chocolate needed to improve cardiovascular health has not been established, however, I believe in moderation! A 1-ounce portion (about 3 small squares) of dark chocolate a couple times a week is just fine.
Flavonols (and their potential heart benefits) are also found in yellow onions, broccoli, blueberries, cherry tomatoes, apples, black tea, green beans, and variety of other fruits and vegetables. Bon appétit!