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February 6, 2008

Love Your Body and Your Body Will Love You Back

Heart Disease is the number one killer of American women and America's leading killer of women over the age of 34.

National Women's Heart Week (February 1-7) is an outreach program that was designed to help women come together and encourage fitness, promote stress reduction activities and learn about heart-healthy eating and gender-specifics on women's heart disease. The 7 focus days of Women's Heart Week promote prevention, education, symptoms awareness and early intervention.

Each day this week had its own focus, but we thought the one that had the most to do with February's "love" theme (in this case, loving yourself and taking care of your body) is the focus for tomorrow: Positive Self-Image.

I believe that self-esteem and self-image play a big role in your heart's health, in two main ways. On the one hand, everyone already accepts the theory that stress can have a negative effect on the body.

According to the Institute of HeartMath - a research center dedicated to the study of the heart and the physiology of emotions - there is a potential link between your emotions and your heart's health. They, and many others, believe that there is a critical link between the heart and the brain and that your emotions change the signals the brain sends to the heart and the heart's responses to those feelings. Negative or stressful feelings (such as anxiety and insecurity) can cause the heart's rhythms to become more erratic, increase the release of "stress hormones", constrict the blood vessels, raise the blood pressure, weaken the immune system, and increase the risk of developing heart disease. Meanwhile, positive emotions (love, compassion, appreciation, self-esteem) can create "harmonious heart rhythms" and therefore, a healthier and more efficient cardiovascular system.

On the other hand, having positive self-image is also related to an increase in what can be called "positive health and wellness practices". What does that mean exactly? The higher your self-esteem, the less likely you are to engage in "risk behaviors" like smoking and drug use, excessive drinking, or overeating, and the more likely you are to engage in preventative health activities such as regular checkups, exercise, and healthy diet.

What's even better is that it works in reverse too: good health and healthy behaviors can actually help raise your self-esteem. For example, everyone knows that exercising will help your physical health, but it can also greatly enhance your self esteem and reduce your stress.

So positive self-image can affect your heart - and your health in general - twofold. The direct effects have to do with the physiological responses of stress (or lack thereof). The indirect effects have to do with the psychological and behavioral changes self-esteem can trigger. Basically, if you love your body, you're more likely to treat it with the care and respect that it deserves.

Love your body - and it will love you back.

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