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10 Steps to a Healthier Heart

It is that time of year again. Roses are blooming. Hearts are everywhere. The little-themed class valentines are appearing everywhere from Walmart to Amazon.

But February is more than a month of boxes of chocolates and Forget-me-nots. It is also National Heart Month. This is a month to take stock of our hearts. After a month of new year’s resolutions, how healthy is your heart?

Is your heart healthy physically? Spiritually? Emotionally? As we start this heart-healthy month, here are ten tips for getting your heart healthy and keeping it that way.

1. Develop a growth mindset: First, let us realize we are not perfect. We can be better at a lot of things. Failure is just a way something did not work – it does not make you a failure. Failures can help show us where we can work better, where we are stronger, and where we can modify things to better serve our purposes. Use these as fuel not capstones.

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2. Get your priorities straight: When we lived in Maryland, we were so burdened by the stress busy on the go life, and we did not realize how much until we moved out of state. In the move, we realized we had our priorities out of place. We were so focused on work, school, and the appearance we were giving, that we stopped focusing on the real things that matter – faith, family, friends. We were lonely. Exhausted. Stressed. If we learned anything, it was to get our priorities straight. For me, that means God, family (husband then kid), myself, then friends, then my community. When I need to decide on who gets my attention and how beneficial it will be to my family, I think in this priority list.

3. Take it one step at a time: Every goal is a goal because it has not yet been attained. So, as you evaluate your life (and how far you have come in your new year’s resolutions), remember it takes time. Whether you have chosen one of these resolutions you can keep or something else, it is a process.  The same goes with your heart. You will not wake up tomorrow and have perfect heart health. Do not set yourself up for failure. Remember, each day is a new day and getting to a healthy place takes time.

4. Let us get physical: I am the first to say I want to curl up with a delightful book by the fire or binge-watch a show on Netflix or Amazon. Although a part of my heart-healthy me (love myself) decision making, it is not a part of the physically healthy heart I want. We make it a priority in our home to work out a minimum of four days a week. We like our YMCA gym with classes and weights, but we have also learned to be able to use free YouTube workout videos or cheap online programs to mix things up or to be able to do during quarantine/gym closures. Just because you must stay at home does not give mean you cannot get your sweat on! I like Yoga Shred, Les Mills, and Piyo as great at home programs.  

5. Plan: This year my husband has set a crazy family goal for us – 300 miles in 365 days! If you know me at all, you know I hate running. But my husband and son love it. So, as part of our heart-healthy family, we run. We have a calendar on the wall that shows our progress and acts as a daily reminder to get out there. My husband and son are also much faster than me, but instead of leaving me to finish alone, they always make a point to run back to me (after they finished their run) and run the reminder with me. We start as a family and finish as a family.

6. Give yourself a break: I am a perfectionist. I loved 100% grades in school. I love a pristine home. I love things done well. But I have also learned to give myself a break. We are not perfect and never will be. The goal needs to shift from perfection to better. I will not run 365 days in a row. Not happening. My husband knows this. So, he gave me 65 days of grace. 65 days I do not have to run. I get a break! This helps build my emotional heart health and family heart health.

7. Make time: Part of any good health plan is to make time. As Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, made popular by the song Turn! Turn! Turn! by the Byrds, says, to everything there is a season. Time to work out. Time to spend with God. Time to spend with your family. Time to laugh. Time to rest. Make the time to make your heart goals a priority. This might mean you take time on the weekend prepping meals for the week. Or you get an hour earlier so you can have quiet time with God. Or you take Friday night once a week to hang out with the girls. The trick is to set it in your planner and make it a priority. For me, if it is in the planner, it happens. If it is not, chances are 50/50.

8. Eat right: I am not a nutritionist, dietician, or doctor. But I am confident that eating right is a part of maintaining a healthy heart. It is also super important for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, weight, and has significant benefits for those with special needs. The gut is related to the brain and everything else. What we put in has an enormous impact on us. So, whether this means your goal is to reduce sugar intake, limit eating out, or increase protein and vegetables in your diet, figure out what works for you. I like the GAPS diet as a great way to start (not stay).  This will allow you to see what your body thrives on and what may be harming it. It is also a wonderful way to get a baseline on how you feel and your health. We did it for two years and learned so much about ourselves.

9. Slowly replace unhealthy with healthy: No one should be expected to quit or start something cold turkey. The success rate is limited at best. Instead, try replacing things one thing at a time. According to Healthline, it takes 3-8 months to make something a habit.  So, take it one habit at a time. If physical fitness is the key, focus on moving the body for three months before tackling the diet too (or vice versa). If spiritual health is your focus, focus on adding in a devotional or meditation before also adding a small group or class. If emotional health is key, focus on adding quality time with family and friends before adding the next ten meetups you can find. Pick one thing for a minimum of three months and replace the unhealthy habit you want to discard from your life. Slow and steady wins the race.

10. Get enough sleep:  Ever notice how no one ever says they hate sleep.? There is a reason for that. Sleep rejuvenates us and heals us. Our bodies do amazing things while we sleep to make us better and stronger. It also helps clear our brains and gives our brains the ability to make wiser and healthy choices with our family, friends, and communities. A wonderful way to have a healthy physical and emotional heart is to get enough quality sleep. If sleep is a hard thing for you or someone you love, as it has been for me and my son, then I encourage you to take a look at these 10 steps to a better night’s sleep that helped us.

So, whether your goal is to be more heart-healthy spiritually, emotionally, or physically, you can do more than you think you can. May these steps work as an encouragement to you as you and I work toward healthier living.

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10 Steps to a Better Night’s Sleep

We have all been there.  Three AM and you are staring at the ceiling.  The fan spins and you try to count the repetitions.  Sheep have been no help.  Your brain swirls with the thoughts of the crazy that was your day and dread for the day to follow slowly seeps in. 

Suddenly, the silence of the house is shattered by the bouncing bubbly kid in the room down the hall.  Energy pours out of his room.  Joy exuberates from him.  He is excited to start his day…before the sun.

You groan as you turn over.  You know today will be like yesterday and the day before that and the day before that.  Why can’t this kid just sleep?  By the time he is asleep, you finally get a bit of me-time.  But me-time at midnight is never good.  This needs to change. But how?

There is no debate on how badly poor sleep affects us.  Poor sleep can hurt our hormones, performance, and brain function.  It can cause weight gain and increase the risk of disease (1234567). 

But, oh sweet, good sleep, can have incredibly good results.  It can help you eat less, exercise better, have better response times, have more control of your emotions, and increase of thought process (28910).

With New Year’s upon us, perhaps now is a great time to take charge of our sleep to have better success with our other New Year’s Goals.

Speaking from experience, this is exhausting for you, your partner, and your children. Here are ten tips we used to help our son (and ourselves) get on a better sleep schedule.

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Reduce blue light exposure during the evening:  Blue light comes from our screens.  We surround ourselves with blue light, especially before bed.  Checking our social media before bed may sound relaxing, but the blue light stimulates us (along with the social media).  So put a stop to screen time at least 30 minutes before bed.  We try for an hour on school nights. No TV, no video games, no phone, no computer.  Instead, use this time to relax and connect face to face with those you cherish the most. Click here for more tips on how to manage screen time.

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Reduce naps during the day/length of naps: I LOVE naps! But, we limit naps.  If we or our son takes a nap, it is usually on a weekend to allow a little breath before scheduled sleep.  When our son was younger, he could take a nap for two hours or more.  We quickly learned this was detrimental.  Now, if he takes a nap, it is limited to 15-30 minutes.  The best way to know you slept enough for a nap is to take your keys (or something else that makes sound) and hold them in your hands.  When you have slept enough for a day nap, you will relax enough the keys will drop and wake you up.  Perfectly refreshed for the remainder of the day without messing up your sleep that night.

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Start a pre-bedtime routine: If you have followed me even for a short time, you know how much I love routine.  This is one of my favorite routines.  This is great for executive functioning and calming down for sleep.  We use this simple routine in our house.  After dinner, we brush our teeth, take a shower, and get in PJs.  Then we do a meditation/prayer and story.  This typically takes 30 minutes if done correctly. This routine acts as a mental trigger that the day is ending, and it is time for bed.   

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Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time: This one is hard.  I admit.  Especially as more people and commitments claim on your time. Find a time that allows the right amount of time for your child to get enough sleep.  We kept an 8 PM bedtime for our son till he was a teenager.  Then we increased it to 9 PM on weekdays and 10 PM on weekends (unless there was a game/dance/etc.)  And let’s be honest, no good happens after 10 PM anyway.  We also keep a routine wake-up time.  Alarm clocks may be needed for the first few weeks to get the body used to it, but soon you will find you naturally wake up at the same time daily.  This is important even on weekends.  You might think sleeping in on weekends is good, but it can mess you up for the first few days of the week.

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Optimize the bedroom: The room is a sanctuary.  It should be a place where you feel safe and comfortable.  The best sleep happens in comfortable rooms.  Here are some things we use to help our family sleep:

  • No screens: There are no screens in our son’s bedroom.  No computer. No phone. No TV.  These produce light, sound, and are an easy distraction once the kid thinks Mom and Dad went to bed.   
  • Blackout Curtains: These are lifesavers.  Two houses we lived in had a streetlight that shone straight into our son’s room.  These curtains helped block that light and create a boy cave for him.  He knew when they were drawn, it was time for hibernation.
  • White Noise/Soft Wordless Music: We lived off a highway in Maryland for years.  You often heard sirens and the like at odd hours of the night.  We learned white noise and wordless music were great for helping our son sleep.  Do kids share a room?  No problem! Try this awesome tool in the child’s pillow and they can listen to their own sound without bothering their roommate.
  • Temperature: A room that is too hot or too cold is prohibitive to good sleep.  The best sleep temperature is about 70° F (20° C).  But the temperature is dependent on your preference.  Test it out. 

Don’t eat before bed: When you are having trouble sleeping, it is tempting to find yourself in the kitchen eating. We often go beyond the warm glass of milk and eat a bowl of cereal or ice cream. Not only is this bad for our waistlines, but it is also bad for our sleep.  Your body uses sleep to restore muscles and systems.  When we eat before bed, we tell our bodies to divert that energy to digestion.  Save yourself and just say no.  I find when I am tempted, a good cup of hot tea is perfect.

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Relax before bed: Relaxing before bed helps me and my family fall asleep and stay in deeper sleep longer.  Take a nice hot shower or bath, do some meditation or yoga (or both).  Read an actual book.  The blue light from a Kindle or iPad will be counterproductive.  Need some entertainment? Do some art or adult coloring pages. Take up a new hobby.  Sew. Crotchet. Knit.  There is so much you can do that does not require a screen. Enjoy learning about you and your kids.

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Rule out a sleep disorder: This one is so important – especially for those with special needs.  Sleep disorders are real. Take the time.  Talk to your doctor.  Describe the sleep your child (or you) is getting.  Do a sleep study.  They are not scary and can be quite comfortable.  This can be eye-opening.  We learned a lot when we took our son for one.  One eye-opening thing is how fast my son can hit REM.  Once he shuts his eyes; he is practically in REM.  This means he is being charged faster than the average human.  Due to this, he needs slightly less sleep than other kids his age.  Taking with our doctor (who happened to see my son fall asleep in a routine checkup once) was so helpful in starting our path to successful sleep.  

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Exercise regularly: It is New Year.  You are thinking you will be at the gym five nights a week for an hour or two.  Let’s get real.  That is probably not true. But you should work out regularly.  Take a walk after work and enjoy the outside world.  Do a workout online or in your gym.  Start the day with a workout.  Just, do yourself a favor, and do not work out before bed.  This will increase your adrenaline and prevent the natural melatonin from working. 

Don’t drink liquids before bed:  This is important especially for young ones working on potty training.  This is a great model to use lifelong.  Drinking too much before bed keeps us up or wakes us up at odd hours. Waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom can stimulate your brain enough to prevent you from being able to go back to sleep.  Try to limit the liquids at least an hour before bed.

BONUS: If all else fails, set rules for waking up the house.  This is so important if you have a child like mine who literally needs less sleep.  Here are some of the rules we incorporated that helped keep the rest of the house asleep and the house peaceful:

  • A time when to leave the room: If your child is waking between 3 AM and 6 AM, it might be helpful to get a visual clock and tell them when an appropriate time to leave the room and start the day is.  This helps with the telling of time and teaches family values and compassion.  Different children have different needs.
  • Give activities they can do: If toys are in their room, let them play. Books are a great way to keep them engaged and quiet.  Books do so much more too! We also allow our son to use his electronic drum set, but he must use headphones. 
  • Have a Coffee Rule: We have the One Cup of Coffee Rule.  Even if we are awake, the quiet of the house must remain until the end of the first cup of coffee.  This allows everyone to wake at their own pace and keep the house peaceful in the mornings.

We use these tips for our entire household.  It has changed how we operate, how kind we are to each other, and helps create a productive environment throughout the day.  These are by no means all the tips that can help you. I encourage you to try them.  Use what works for you.  Ditch what does not.

May this year be one full of rest, relaxation, and growth.