How to Finally Start Improving Your Health

improving your health

Today I’m interviewing Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum. A New York City cardiologist for the past 20 years, and author of Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life. She has been on Good Morning America, The Today Show andDr. Oz, and I’m interviewing her now because she is always helping her patients prioritize improving their health by building new habits and breaking old ones. 

After all, there’s nothing like having your health being at stake to motivate you to make some changes! Although I think we’d all prefer to build the healthy habits BEFORE we get a scary diagnosis. So let’s find out what those two decades of practice have taught her about what works when it comes to making positive changes.

Listen to the Podcast Here

Suzanne, thank you so much for being here today! You are in the business of helping women take better care of themselves in general and their hearts in particular. And a lot of that care requires the giving up of old habits and the building of new ones.
Before we dive into those specifics, can you give us some context on why you’re so passionate about women’s heart health?

I have to tell you a quick story. It started 20 years ago. I was in my training and I was in the emergency room. And a woman was wheeled in, she was about 53 years old. She had nausea, vomiting. She was clearly uncomfortable lying on the stretcher. And she was put in the corner with the diagnosis of gastroenteritis or inflammation of the stomach. She proceeded to have a heart attack in the emergency room, under the care of the doctors that I was learning from. My teachers, my professors, and these physicians that I admired so much.

Oprah talks about that ‘aha’ moment. Well, that was definitely my ‘aha’ moment when I looked around and I thought to myself, women are dying of heart disease. Is everyone seeing what I’m seeing? And the answer was no, because 20 years ago there was no such thing as women and heart disease. We didn’t know that. The research prior was not done on women. And we never thought of heart disease as a woman’s disease. One in three women will die of heart disease. And at that time I decided this has to change. And that has become my life’s purpose and mission.

Isn’t heart disease, the number one killer of women?

It is the number one killer of women. More than all cancers combined.

Well, as a woman and as a lover of women, I would just like to thank you for that. That’s super important.

It’s so important for all women to understand this message and the importance of one thing. which is 80% of the time, heart disease is preventable. And it’s based on lifestyle choices. So it’s based on exactly what you’re talking about. Changing habits becoming healthier. 80% of the time, there is something we can do about it.

Yeah, that’s really good news. So let’s dive into that. How do you go about advising your patients to get started on doing the things that are going to help? Not just improve their heart health, but also make them feel better than ever.

I always use the phrase that we have to live from the heart. And what that means is the more that you become very aware of what makes you feel good, the more you understand what foods energize you, how the way you move physically makes you feel, the better you can understand what you need to live the healthiest life you can.

So this concept of live from the heart is not just about diet and exercise. It’s about sleeping. It’s about things that make you happy, things that upset you. I always say, if you don’t look at your whole life and take a real ruthless analysis of those things that are on the pro side, that really support your health versus the con side, things that do not support your health, you don’t really have an understanding of how to move forward and how to make those changes.

So I like that word that you use, ruthless. Because ruthless to me is necessary, right? And you were talking about raising awareness, which is something that I talk about a lot in a lot of different contexts. Raising awareness is simple, but it’s not easy. If the things that you were talking about were easy, we would all be visions of health.
But chronic disease is only getting more prevalent. As you mention, heart disease is killing one out of every three women. What kinds of things do you think are getting in the way of us adopting healthy habits? This could be on a societal level ,or an individual level, or both.

Well on a societal level, I think as women specifically, we are the uber jugglers of everything. There’s the checklist upon the checklist upon the checklist for everything needed to do every day. Whether that’s work and family, which is the most common. But it’s also taking care of the house. Taking care of sort of everyone but ourselves. That is the most common issue. And women tend to put themselves last on that list, which has a greater impact.

But the other part of it is on the individual level. We always tell ourselves stories and those stories don’t often suit us. For example, the woman that said, “at night, I have so much housework and laundry to do. And I do laundry at night, and that’s when I snack. And it’s important. I have no other time in the day.” Well, I said, let’s take a look at that snacking. And I said, write down everything you eat. Well after nine o’clock, she ate something like 1500 calories. And I was joking around with her and I said, here’s my prescription for you, go to bed earlier. It was really quite funny.

Three months later, she came in and she had lost 15 pounds. And it wasn’t about this amazing diet she went on. It was about becoming ruthlessly aware of habits that did not suit her, and making small changes to actually change those habits. And understanding that story she told herself. Which was, if I don’t stay up all night and do the laundry and eat, my family is not going to be taken care of. When she put that to the side and told herself the true story, which is I have to just go to bed and take care of myself and figure out another time to do the laundry. All of a sudden everything changed.

I love that. That’s such a great story and a great example of how raising your awareness sometimes is the hardest part. You know, I’m sure she probably had some struggles getting in bed earlier on some particular nights because she really felt like she had to get something done. But for the most part, like you said, instead of going on this massive diet, she just had to get more sleep.
And I heard a quote recently that I loved that is, “The easy way is hard enough.” So I mean, I do love that example of how, if you have the awareness, maybe it’s something very simple. And it might be so simple that you wouldn’t necessarily think about it.

I titled my book, The Heart Book. And the reason the book was named that is because I believe that all of us need to write our own heart books. And that heart book, your own personal heart book is really, again, that ruthless analysis. You become a third party journalist of your own life. You become objective about what you do and how you do it. And when you do it, and how it makes you feel. And when you take your emotion out of it and start writing these things down, you can start seeing patterns of your behavior. You are more likely to understand where you need to intervene.

The person that every night has a bowl of ice cream and thinks they’re not eating any sugar, doesn’t realize what they’re doing until they become aware. But once you start telling yourself the truth, you can never go back and lie to yourself again. And it’s so interesting because that is one of the greatest impacts on behavioral change.

Well, that ties into my next question. Which is, you’re saying that once you realize the truth, you can never go back. But there is a phenomenon that I have noticed and I’ve experienced in my own life. Sometimes we make a change and things are going so well that we start to think we don’t need to do the things that created that change in the first place anymore.
It’s kind of like, Oh, I’m so healthy. Now I can do whatever I want. You know, I can go back to eating the ice cream or what have you, do you have any insights on that or guidance?

Absolutely. You never stop being your own journalist. So what happens is when you go back to eating that ice cream, then you tend to say in the morning, “You know, it’s not going to really matter if I have the muffin instead of the oatmeal.” And all of a sudden these bad behaviors start sneaking back in. Until at some point you start feeling badly again. And that’s when this cycle develops.

I think it becomes important to never stop evaluating. And this comes down to a very interesting word, which is mindful. The more mindful we are of our choices, the more we are connected to ourselves physically, the less chance there is to actually go back to those behaviors that do not suit us. But it means paying attention. I always say, when people gain a lot of weight or become unhealthy, it’s because they become disconnected from their bodies. It’s very hard to gain a lot of weight and not feel the real impact of that excess weight on your physicality. You’ve become short of breath. You’ve become more fatigued. You’ve become disconnected.

So what I tell everyone is to constantly check in with yourself and sometimes the best way to do that is through exercise. Because when we exercise, we have to be connected to how we feel. So exercise becomes part of it. But journaling becomes part of it. Writing down what we eat becomes part of it. Taking our weight every day or once a week becomes part of it. The more we become an objective journalist and the more we check in with ourselves, the less disconnected we are, the better chance we have to sustain these habits.

How do we take these habits and really make them second nature? So everybody’s going to go through something in their lives, whether a loved one gets sick, or a pandemic hits and all of a sudden you’re schooling your children at home. Something’s going to come and kind of throw off your habits, right?
How do you advise people in that time to keep it going, even when they might not necessarily be able to do it at the level that they know they’re capable of or have done in the past?

Well, I think two different things happened. There are the people who go to bad habits when they’re stressed. So there’s like stress eating. And then there are times when things are incredibly stressful and all of a sudden you’re homeschooling kids and you can’t have that daily exercise routine in the same way. Just simply because of time.

In the big picture, I think stress management becomes so important. And incorporating in our lives a daily way to manage stress. Whether that be meditation, yoga, a breathing activity, or even exercise. But something every day that allows us to decrease the sympathetic nervous system or the fight or flight hormones that can really set us into a tailspin. And once we have that, our ability to be more mindful and less reactive exists. And we are able to make better choices and not stress eat.

But then when it comes down to the time when we don’t have the opportunity to exercise because of what’s happening. What I always say to everyone is that every day you have another opportunity to make a new choice and have another day. And not to become self-destructive because Monday didn’t work out. Because you know what you got Tuesday. And if Tuesday doesn’t work out, you have Wednesday.

When there’s a slight glitch in the program, everything doesn’t have to fall apart. But it becomes important again, to maintain some level of stress management in order to stay focused and really to stay grounded in those choices.

Great. So for listeners, who’d like to hear more from you, how do they find you?

You can find me on my website, dr.suzannesteinbaum.com.

Daily Tiny Assignment

I loved how Suzanne talked about how she would have her patients do a ruthless sort of accounting of the habits that they have. The things that they did on a daily basis. And decide if they were either a pro or a con in terms of their health. That’s your tiny assignment. Sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil and write down the things that you do on a regular basis or a somewhat basis that you know are good for you. That help you feel your best, that are good for your health and reduce your stress. That help you be a better person.

And then be honest, be brave and write down the things that you do on a regular basis that, you know, aren’t so great. This is just in the service of a raising your awareness of what’s going on. And maybe helping you figure out what new habit you want to create, as well as what old habits you want to get away from. When you can see things clearly, like Suzanne said, sometimes the simplest most elegant solution makes itself available to you. Like the woman who was staying up too late and eating snacks while she just had to go to bed earlier. And then she got more sleep and her diet radically improved.

Alright, that’s it from me today. Come back tomorrow. When I am sharing the special sauce for making a new habit stick.

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