October 29, 2018

Keeping your heart healthy during the holidays

The holiday season is a time of excitement and anticipation but the cold weather, change in routine and increase in stress can also increase your risk for heart attack or stroke.

In fact, recent studies show an increase in death rates from heart attack and stroke during the holidays, specifically on Christmas Day, December 26 and New Year's Day.

Dr. Heather Johnson of the UW Health Preventive Cardiology Clinic says, "Many of our patients are concerned with risk factors such as weight gain and stress this time of year, but there are many strategies you can put in place for yourself or loved ones so you don't increase the risk of heart attack and stroke."

Seasonal Holiday Risk Factors

Cold Weather

Cold weather constricts your arteries and causes your heart to work harder. Make sure you have proper clothing and gear for outdoor activities and use good judgment – and caution - when shoveling or participating in activities like sledding or skiing, if they aren't a part of your normal routine.

Changes in Routine

Remember to:

  • Plan ahead

  • Be mindful of what you eat

  • Get your sleep

  • Take your medications

Exercise, healthy eating and even medications can take a hit during the holiday season. Account for any changes in your schedule and plan ahead so you can stick to some, if not all of your exercise routine.

People tend to over-indulge during the holiday season, but you can use strategies, such as filling half your plate with vegetables, eating smaller meals throughout the day or eating at a slower pace to control the amount of calories you consume.

Though the invitations are piling up and your to-do list never seems to end, make it a priority to get to bed on time. Getting enough sleep will help you manage stress and even burn calories.

Most importantly, remember to take your medications, including statins and blood thinners. If you aren't following your regular routine, keep your medications available by carrying them with you. It's also important to schedule and keep recommended medical appointments. Follow your doctor's recommendation for flu shots and other immunizations to avoid illnesses that may put stress on your heart.


Family, overspending and over-commitment are just a few of many possible holiday stressors. Identify a support person in advance who can help you during difficult times whether you're dealing with a loss or managing challenging family relationships.

Share the responsibilities of cooking, hosting or shopping when possible.

And, most importantly, be realistic when looking at your calendar about the amount of time you are able to commit to something.

Alcohol Consumption

Binge drinking can cause atrial fibrillation, a common type of irregular heart beat that can lead to heart failure or stroke. Hidden calories in cocktails, juices and punch also add up very quickly, so consume alcohol and other sweetened beverages in moderation.

Give yourself a break

If you missed a day of exercise, stayed out too late, or double-booked your calendar, allow yourself the opportunity to take a step back, re-evaluate your schedule and recommit to making decisions that are healthier for your mind, body and heart – it's the best gift you can give yourself and those you love during any season!