A tough economy may hurt your financial well being, but don't let it threaten your cardiovascular health.
"Psychological stress including major life changes, financial difficulties, and problems with personal relationships can increase blood pressure, heart rate, and possibly even affect angina or cause chest pains related to coronary heart disease," says Keith C. Ferdinand, M.D., chief science officer for the Association of Black Cardiologists and a professor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Fun and recreational activities often are the first things to go when budgets get trimmed. If people turn to smoking, overeating, or excess drinking to cope with stress, they compound the physical damage, says Redford Williams, M.D., director of Duke University's Behavioral Medicine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina.
Which relaxation methods work best -- and are safest to try -- will depend on your preferences and heart health. "Not everything is right for everybody," Williams says. In addition to relaxing, "you may have to confront the source of your stress and make changes," he advises.
The bottom line is that you don't have to spend lots of money on a day spa, fitness club, or big night out.
Read on for Heart-Healthy Living's 12 healthful and free ways to relax, based on sound medical research.
Start a Journal
Something bothering you? Try writing about it in a journal for 15 minutes a night. This short-term focused writing exercise can raise your immunity and improve your functioning, says University of Texas psychologist James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., an expert on the healing effects of expressive writing.
Unwind With Music
Pick a quiet place and listen to music you find calming. Researchers have found that easy listening, classical, or jazz music that is instrumental, steady, harmonic, and has 60-70 beats per minute (similar to a heart rate) reduces anxiety. Or join a community choir for the added health benefit of social interaction.
Tip: Find genre music stations at radiorow.com.
Draw, paint, sculpt, embroider, crochet, or knit at home or in a social circle. Creativity can reduce stress. Cancer patients who participated in a support group combining meditation and art therapy experienced significant drops in their stress levels and improved their quality of life, according to a 2006 study.
Tip: Youtube.com videos teach crafts for free.
Anything from a brisk walk to a light jog will work -- in your neighborhood, a nearby park, or in a mall. "Walking gives a physiological, mental, and emotional benefit," says Ruth Ann Carpenter, an active-living consultant. "I have solved many, many challenges in my life on long walks." Or go with a friend. Research shows that improves your odds of keeping new health habits.
Relax Your Body
Take a few deep breaths. "Simple deep breathing is as simple as it sounds," Carpenter says. "It's tremendously beneficial in reducing heart rate and bringing down perceived stress." Try progressive muscle relaxation: Start at your feet and tense those muscles, then relax. Move up your body, repeating with each muscle group.
Spending time with a friend or in stimulating company can help shake the blues and widen your world. Socializing doesn't have to be expensive. Have a tea party at home rather than going out for a pricey meal. People who have friends they can talk to have healthier hearts, says stress expert Redford Williams.
Borrow a Pet
Pets can cheer us up and get us out and about. Studies have shown they also can reduce stress-related increases in blood pressure. "It's a fairly well-known phenomenon," Ruth Ann Carpenter, M.S., R.D., says. If you don't want the extra work and expense of owning a pet, volunteer to walk a neighbor's dog or help out at an animal shelter.
Blood pressure tip: In a 1999 study of stockbrokers taking medicine for high blood pressure, researchers from the State University of New York at Buffalo found that those who adopted a pet reduced by half the increase in blood pressure that came with stress.
Relax Your Mind
Mental relaxation methods such as meditation require little more than a quiet space and basic know-how you can find online or at the library. Slow, rhythmic breathing while sitting in an extremely comfortable position relieves stress, says Keith C. Ferdinand, M.D., chief science officer for the Association of Black Cardiologists and a professor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. You don't have to adhere to one particular method.
Create an At-Home Spa
Start with a relaxing soak in your bathtub. (If you have a heart condition, be careful not to make the water too hot.) Try soothing bath products such as smell-good soaps, bath oils, and eye pads.
Take a Nap
Sneak away from the rigors of your daily routine for a quick siesta. People, particularly working men, who took a half-hour nap at least three times a week had a 37 percent lower coronary death rate than nonnappers, according to a 2007 study of more than 23,000 Greek men and women.
Volunteer Your Time
Drive someone to church or temple. Volunteer to read to kindergartners. Serve food at a homeless shelter. "Even in these economic times, if you can volunteer your time, you will feel better," says Sharonne Hayes, M.D., a Mayo Clinic cardiologist. "There's nothing better than the satisfaction from helping someone else."
Have a Laugh
Listen to your favorite comedian. Watch a funny movie. Read a humor book. Share a joke with a friend. Whatever it takes to make you laugh. Laughing can improve the functioning of blood vessels and increase blood flow, according to a University of Maryland School of Medicine study presented in 2005.