Easing congestive heart failure with diet and exercise
Encourage heart-healthy eating
Following a diet specifically designed for people with congestive heart failure can dramatically diminish the disease's symptoms. The key to this diet is limiting salt, because too much sodium can lead to fluid retention, which worsens congestive heart failure symptoms. Although you should ask the doctor for specific dietary guidelines, these are some of the keys to a better diet:
- Cook with less salt. Reducing the sodium in a patient's diet doesn't mean condemning him to a lifetime of bland foods. Season with herbs, spices, and freshly ground pepper instead of salt. Citrus juices and vinegars can make a delicious base for marinating meat. For treats that are naturally low in sodium, stock up on plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Ask the doctor for a referral to a nutritionist who can offer more tips on preparing low-sodium foods.
- Look for sodium content on labels. Packaged foods, canned soups, and condiments are often loaded with sodium. Before buying, examine the nutritional information. Be sure to look at how many servings each package contains and how much sodium is in each serving. And don't forget to check the ingredient list: If sodium or salt is listed in the first five ingredients, find an alternative. For example, look for low-sodium versions of canned vegetables.
- Be a salt sleuth when eating out. A patient doesn't have to give up going out to restaurants, but he does need to watch what he orders. Many restaurants are willing to accommodate special dietary needs; ask your waitperson if the cook can prepare foods without adding salt or MSG. Substitute steamed vegetables or fresh fruit for French fries or rice pilaf. Ask for salad dressing on the side, or request vinegar or lemon wedges instead.
Even if someone follows these suggestions, it may not be easy for him to change a lifetime of eating habits. Acknowledge that it's difficult and listen to his concerns. Discuss what foods he does and doesn't like and involve him in meal planning. If he lives alone, you might help him prepare large amounts of low-sodium foods that he likes and freeze individual portions.
Keep the patient moving
It may seem counterintuitive, but if a person has congestive heart failure, he should stay as active as possible. Although strenuous exercise may overtax a heart that's having difficulty pumping, moderate exercise can actually help the heart get stronger. Other health benefits of exercise include weight loss, lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and improved circulation.
If he has always been a couch potato, it may be difficult to encourage him to get going. The good news is that even short bursts of moderate exercise can be beneficial. Simply parking farther away from the store or taking the stairs instead of the elevator can add more physical activity to his day. Housework and gardening are great ways for someone with congestive heart failure to get some exercise. You might also encourage him to join you in a morning walk around the neighborhood.
Of course, he needs to avoid stressing his heart. Talk to his doctor about what activities he can safely enjoy, and what levels of exercise are appropriate. You might also ask for a referral to a cardiac rehabilitation program.