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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, nursing professor is encouraging individuals with cardiovascular disease to practice a heart-healthy lifestyle.

For over 30 years, Robin Harris, clinical associate professor in UT’s College of Nursing, has been caring for patients with cardiovascular disease. Synonymous with heart disease, cardiovascular disease refers to conditions involving blocked or narrowed blood vessels, which can lead to a heart attack, chest pain, and stroke.

Clinical Associate Professor Robin Harris
Clinical Associate Professor Robin Harris

“For many years I cared for patients who had experienced acute cardiovascular events. I also provided chronic disease management for patients with cardiovascular disorders,” said Harris. “In many cases, making important lifestyle changes resulted in improved health outcomes for these patients.”

A heart-healthy lifestyle means making daily choices for nutrition and health habits, such as eating foods low in saturated fats and cholesterol, increasing physical activity, and avoiding tobacco, to decrease modifiable risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular events.

“Moderation is the key to success when making lifestyle changes for cardiovascular health,” Harris said. “You don’t have to give up foods that are high in saturated fats completely—just eat foods such as fatty meats, fried foods, or whole-fat dairy items less frequently and limit portion sizes.”

Harris suggests that one way to increase physical activity is to take a short walk, starting out with just three to five minutes a day and increasing that time gradually toward a goal of at least 30 minutes daily. For individuals without any underlying medical conditions, it is recommended to set realistic goals for physical activity and gradually increase activity based on your body’s ability to avoid overexertion and injury.

“Making healthy lifestyle choices is important for cardiovascular health, but particularly important now during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Harris said. “By keeping ourselves healthy, we are better prepared to keep our families healthy and better able to protect others in the community during the pandemic.”

In addition to promoting a healthy lifestyle, Harris has focused her research on exercise in patients with cardiovascular disease and heart failure.

Traditionally, health professionals have not recommended an exercise program for those experiencing heart failure due to concern that exercise could worsen the condition.

“My research, along with works of other researchers, supports that exercise in patients with heart failure can improve symptoms, activity tolerance, and management of chronic heart failure without worsening the heart failure condition,” Harris said.

Harris, along with two other College of Nursing faculty members–Associate Professor Joel Anderson and Assistant Professor Tracey Vitori—is currently working on a research project examining the effects of exercise on cognition in older adults with cardiovascular disease risk factors.

“There are both physiological and psychological benefits of exercise,” Harris stated. “We are exploring those benefits on memory and cognition in the aging patient population.”

Cognitive decline can occur as part of the aging process, and it is important to understand the effects of physical activity in preventing memory loss or cognitive decline.

Harris hopes her work will make others more aware of the benefits of physical activity for cardiovascular health and overall general health.

In addition to promoting physical activity, Harris encourages everyone to be their own health advocate for good nutrition by reading product labels.

“Look at the labels on food products to understand what the nutritional information is for that product,” she said. “Don’t be tricked by the name of the product or the advertisement for the product—make it a habit to read nutrition labels!”

Prevention of cardiovascular disease progression and cardiovascular events is important for everyone, not just for those diagnosed with cardiovascular disease.

CONTACT

Diane Carr (865-974-7603, dcarr9@utk.edu)