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For some time now, researchers across the US have noticed a disturbing trend: the incidence of heart attacks increases during the winter holiday season. One 2004 study, published in Circulation—a publication of the American Heart Association—even found distinct spikes around Christmas and New Year’s Day.

In the extensive study, which encompassed 28 years of data, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and Tufts University School of Medicine examined 53 million U.S. death certificates from 1973 to 2001. They discovered an overall increase of five per cent more heart-related deaths during the holiday season.

When they broke their research into individual years, they found varying increases in cardiac deaths for every holiday period, with the exception of two. In fact, they noticed the number of cardiac deaths higher on December 25 than on any other day of the year, second highest on December 26, and third highest on January 1.

We are all familiar with the known risk factors for heart disease. You know, the things that are bad for us: smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, lack of exercise and age. But what is it about the holiday season that makes the risk that much greater?

Robert A. Kloner, MD, PhD, a cardiologist and researcher at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles and a professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California says a few factors may come into play. In a 2011 article, Kloner suggests that the most prominent of these is that the holidays mess with our schedules and routine, our stress levels, and exacerbate our tendency toward overindulgence.

“During the holidays, legions of Americans eat too much and drink more alcohol while ditching their exercise routine. Needless to say, this combo isn’t healthy for the heart,” Kloner says. In addition, “people tend to gain weight during the holiday season and take in more salt, which can put additional stress on a weakened heart.”

By no means comprehensive, this list offers a few other considerations:

  • Extra physical exertion, such as snow shovelling—depending on where you live;
  • Cold weather acts as a vasoconstrictor, which means it narrows the blood vessels, which would increase the risk of heart attack; 
  • Delaying seeking help or treatment because you don’t want to disrupt holiday celebrations;
  • Traveling schedules may not allow immediate access to emergent health care, if required.

While the exact reason for the upward trend over the holiday season can’t accurately be determined, both Kloner and the American Heart Association recommend some common-sense measures that can help you mitigate your risk.

  1. Stay warm.
    Pile on the layers. If you can’t avoid exposure to very cold temperatures, at least make sure you’re dressed appropriately for the weather when you do have to go outside.

  2. Take a load off.
    Depending on where you live, the snow may still be falling. But, as much as you can, steer clear of heart stressors, including too much physical exertion (especially snow shovelling). Embrace the spirit of the season and let go of anger and emotional stress as much as you can.

  3. Make good choices.
    Holiday parties are the rule of the season, but keep moderation as your focus. As much as you can, avoid excess salt and alcohol. Too much drinking and binge drinking can lead to an abnormal heart rhythm in which disorganized electrical signals cause the heart’s two upper chambers to contract irregularly.This phenomenon, called Atrial fibrillation, can increase the risk of stroke, heart attack, andheart failure.

  4. Lastly, and probably most importantly, don’t give up on regular exercise.
    Richard Stein, professor of medicine and cardiology at the New York University School of Medicine in New York City and a spokesman for the American Heart Association advises going into the season with a plan.

    He recommends making a pact with yourself, for example, “For these three weeks I will get at least 30 minutes of activity per day, I’ll have a reasonably healthy breakfast and lunch and limit the sweets. And I’ll leave my meds out on the dresser so I won’t leave the house without having taken them.”

I would take that one step further and suggest that if you feel like you’re going to slip up, tell someone close to you and create some accountability.

If, between the parties and the shopping, you don’t have time to hit the gym, make some simple changes to incorporate movement into your daily activities. Get off the bus a stop or two early and walk to work, or pick up the pace on family activities.

Even better, if you can build movement into your regular workday, do it. Choose to take the stairs rather than the elevator. Or add some products to your office that help you move without compromising your productivity, like a sit-stand desk, desk pedals, or a treadmill desk.

Once the holidays are over, you can return to your usual heart-healthy routine if you have one. And if you don’t, there’s no better time to start one than the present.

The WalkTop Treadmill Desk by Fitneff allows you to incorporate movement into your day at work or at home. Stay active this holiday season with the WalkTop, or give one as a gift to someone you love. 


About Janine Dilger

Janine Dilger is the Calgary-based Director of Communications at Fitneff Inc. Fitneff is dedicated to providing innovative products and solutions that help busy people make their productive time more active. The WalkTop by Fitneff allows you to incorporate movement into your day at work or at home.


@fitneff / @walktop

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