Family Health: Help a friend lower heart disease risks

As you make your Christmas list, consider this unique present. It’s something you can’t wrap and put under the tree – in fact, you might want to wait for the right moment to offer it. You may not even get a lot of thanks right away, but the rewards will last a lifetime. It’s the gift of your time and commitment to help a loved one achieve a healthier heart.

You probably already know the person who would benefit most from this gift. He or she may avoid exercise and eat unhealthy foods, which may already have led to overweight, unhealthy cholesterol levels or high blood pressure. These are all heart disease risks, and if your friend or relative smokes that makes things much worse.

Chances are this person knows that some changes would help his or her health, but has so far resisted. That’s where your Christmas spirit comes in. Frame your gift as a buddy project for the new year that will improve heart disease risks for both of you.

That means that you’ll both benefit from these strategies:

  • Make a date for regular walks. Move on to longer walks or hikes as your fitness improves. Consider joining a health club together – some Missoula centers offer discounted memberships during the holidays. If you or your loved one has chronic health problems, make sure to clear the activity regimen with a doctor first.
  • Share a healthy meal. This will be a demonstration of how delicious veggies and other healthy foods can be. Follow up with one or two shared meals each week that limit red meat and add fish such as salmon or trout. You can find tips on heart-healthy cooking from the American Heart Association at
  • Set weight-loss goals together. Nearly one in four adults in Montana is obese, and many more of us could benefit from losing a few pounds. If that applies to you or your loved one, doing it together can help you be successful. You have a head start if you’re already sharing exercise and healthy meals. Add to that by cutting out fatty foods and those with added sugar, especially sodas. When you both reach your first weight-loss goal, celebrate with a movie – not a meal.
  • Quit smoking together, or help your loved one quit. This can greatly lower heart disease risks, even for older adults. Start by making a list of reasons to quit, which also includes lowering your risks for lung diseases and many types of cancer. Set a quit date and keep in touch with your loved one as he or she deals with the urge to smoke. Even if you don’t smoke yourself, you can help by keeping the person active and occupied.
  • Encourage a check-up. You or your loved one may have a condition that raises heart disease risks, such as high blood pressure or unhealthy cholesterol levels. Medications, along with exercise and a healthy diet, can help improve these conditions.

It can take a little bravery to offer this gift – you’re up against possible embarrassment or even denial that it’s needed. If you anticipate resistance, try a different approach. Tell you loved one you want to lower your own risks and ask for help with your step-by-step plan. Either way, both of you will have a better chance for a healthy heart.