4 Surprising Ways Your Partner can Affect Your Cardiovascular Health

Living a healthy lifestyle is one way to ensure long-term cardiovascular health. But what if your partner isn’t exactly a poster child for healthy choices? Are you doomed?

couples1 Not at all, says Lou Soltys, MSW, a clinical social worker who leads Lifestyle Change groups at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Participants in her group learn to make small, sustainable changes, and more often than not, their partners come along for the ride.

New research from the University of Edinburgh supports Soltys’ optimistic outlook. As part of the Generation Scotland project, researchers reviewed the health records of 20,000 people, studying the link between obesity, genetics and lifestyle habits. Sixteen measures were looked at, including hip ratio, blood pressure, body fat content and body mass index (BMI).

Their findings indicate that by the time you reach middle age — genetics aside — the lifestyle you share with your partner has the biggest influence on whether you’ll place a burden on your heart by becoming obese. Even people with a family history of obesity reduced their risk by making healthier choices. Knowing that lifestyle changes in adulthood can help fight obesity is great news for anyone who has ever worried about having “fat genes.”

And while for some people, a partner’s unfortunate habits make it harder for to live healthfully, for others, joining forces with their partner can be a big help.

A Healthy Partnership?

Let’s take a look at the many ways your significant other can affect your cardiovascular health:

1. Weight

Being obese — having too much body fat — increases your risk for high blood pressure, high LDL (bad) cholesterol and diabetes. In fact, waist size alone is an accurate predictor of cardiovascular risk. One study found that women with waist sizes of 35 inches or higher had double the risk of dying from heart disease, compared to women with waist sizes of less than 28 inches.

DanelleOlsonDanelle Olson, RD (right), is a nutritionist in the Lipid Clinic at the CardioVascular Institute (CVI) at BIDMC. When patients with a family history of cardiovascular disease — or who already have high cholesterol — are referred to the CVI, part of their initial visit includes a session with Olson.

“Many of them are at a crossroads: change their eating habits or start taking medication,” she says. “I’m there to walk them through what a heart-healthy diet looks like.”

When it comes to making healthy lifestyle changes, having a supportive partner can make all the difference in the world.

“If you’re not the person in your family who cooks and does the food shopping, it can be tough,” says Olson. “I've seen patients who have a hard time changing their eating because they cook to what their spouse or family members desire."

2. Activity Level

If physical activity were a drug, a daily dose of it would provide more health benefits than any known medication. Physical activity’s effect on cardiovascular risk factors is significant: it helps lower your blood pressure and LDL cholesterol. And, it increases your HDL (good) cholesterol and insulin sensitivity.

couples2 In fact, just taking three 10-minute walks every day can reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke by 10 percent. And if you spend a lot of time sitting down, getting up and walking for 10 minutes every two hours can prevent atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

Having a workout buddy — someone to be active with — can keep you going when your motivation flags. But if physical activity hasn’t always been on your agenda, it can be a challenge to get everyone on board with your new goals.

Soltys helps participants in her Lifestyle Changes groups put a positive spin on physical activity. Instead of an onerous item on their daily to-do lists, they reframe it as an opportunity to spend time with friends, family and their partners.

Her advice? “You don’t need to join a gym. Just look for ways to add activity to everyday life. Instead of meeting a friend for lunch, meet to take a walk. Put on music you love and dance. Make a family walk your new holiday tradition.”

3. Alcohol Use

If your partner routinely drinks more than is healthy, you’re likely to mirror that behavior, to the detriment of your health. Too much alcohol:

  • Raises triglyceride levels in the blood
  • Leads to high blood pressure and heart failure
  • Can cause obesity due to the overconsumption of calories
  • May lead to cardiomyopathy, cardiac arrhythmia and sudden cardiac death

But according to published research , moderate drinking — one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men — won’t lead to weight gain.

On the other hand, alcohol provides empty calories. If you’re trying to manage your weight, this could be a place to cut back. Alcohol also acts as a depressant and an insomniac, which, of course, is not how it’s advertised. Alcohol once in a while, for a treat, is not a problem. Frequent use is something you might want to think twice about.

4. Sleep

Does your partner snore, or suffer from sleep apnea or insomnia? Are you an early bird married to a night owl? couples3 Is there a TV in your bedroom? Any or all of these situations can affect your sleep — and your cardiovascular health.

Participants in BIDMC’s Lifestyle Change groups are often surprised to find out how much sleep matters to their health. Lack of sleep has been linked to chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, cancer and obesity.

“People in my groups think that a healthy lifestyle is just about eating right and getting more exercise,” says Soltys. “We bring in a sleep specialist to talk to them about the impact of sleep deprivation. We talk about their barriers to healthy sleep. And then we look for ways to overcome them.”

Try a Little Togetherness

Social support from friends, family and loved ones is a critical factor in healthy behavior change. They help us get and stay motivated. They keep us on track. And they can even make healthy changes seem like fun. If your partner balks when you try to make healthy changes, remember this advice from Soltys:

  1. Don’t try to make massive, wholesale changes. Get your partner on board with trying with one small thing, like a new vegetable you’ve never eaten.
  2. Reframe physical activity as “you time,” something that brings the two of you together.
  3. Replace sedentary couple activities with more active choices. For example, instead of always going to the movies, try going bowling.

After all, what a gift for a couple to share: good health and well-being.

Above content provided by the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

April 2016

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