By Linda Malone | Edited by Elena Doxey
Did you know that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States? With 2,200 people dying of heart-related illnesses each day, there’s no better time than now to take action.
Since February is American Heart Month, we compiled 29 noteworthy and easy-to-digest tips to achieve a healthy heart and lifestyle.
- Get in 30 minutes of exercise: Whether you take a 30-minute walk every day or fit in three 10-minute exercise breaks, putting in the time for those recommended 30 minutes of activity can dramatically help you maintain a healthy lifestyle.
- Get your heart pumping: Step up your workout to raise your heart rate enough to make a difference. You’ll know when you’re at optimum intensity when you break a sweat and feel tired and sore afterwards. Don’t overdo it, though. Safety first.
- Step it up: Taking the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator is an easy way to incorporate exercise into your daily routine. It’s also a good health check indicator. If you’re out of breath climbing the same number of stairs you did last week, you may want to see your physician for a check-up.
- Put on your dancing shoes: Dancing is not only great aerobic exercise, but it’s a fun way to reduce stress and keep your heart healthy.
- Crank up the music: Listening to music may have direct impact on lowering blood pressure and lessening stress and anxiety—all of which are contributing factors to cardiovascular disease.
- Reduce stress: Stress can have negative effects on behavior, which can lead to overeating, taking up smoking or smoking more than usual―which can then lead to heart disease and stroke. Chronic stress has also been linked to hormonal changes which may raise blood pressure and heart rate. Experts suggest trying meditation or taking a yoga or Tai Chi class to help reduce stress.
- Take a power nap: Just taking a 45-minute nap after a stressful situation or mental task has been shown to reduce blood pressure.
- Manage your emotions: Having feelings of anger, sadness, frustration, or stress can increase blood pressure and put pressure on your heart. One study revealed people who had high levels of psychosocial distress ran the same risk of suffering a heart attack as those who smoke.
- Watch your waist: Belly (visceral) fat is more than just a “spare tire” that you need to lose. It’s a clear predictor of your increased risk of heart disease. For every extra two inches of belly fat you carry around, you are increasing your heart disease risk by 20%!
- Know your BMI: Normal body mass index (BMI) ranges from 18.5 to 24.9 kg/m2. A BMI of 27-30+ indicates that a person’s weight falls within the overweight-to-obese range and puts them at an increased cardiovascular risk.
- Cut Your Portion Size: Being aware of portion sizes can help keep your calories and belly fat under control. Proper portions, for example, include: 3 ounces of meat or chicken (the size of a deck of cards), and 1 1/2 ounces of hard cheese (three dice).
- Increase your daily fiber: Eating at least 25 grams of fiber every day can help lower your risk of heart disease. Eating fiber-rich foods such as oats, beans and oranges helps lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. Those who eat a high fiber diet, over time, have been shown to have a significantly lower lifetime risk of developing cardiovascular disease when compared to those who consume smaller amounts of fiber.
- Eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables: Fruits and veggies are not only good sources of vitamins and minerals but they are low in calories and rich in dietary fiber. Their vibrant colors are reflected in healthy pigments called ‘flavonoids’ which have been known to reduce the risk of inflammation—a crucial factor in the development of cardiovascular disease.
- Skip the salt: Too much salt in your diet can lead to high blood pressure—a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends no more than 2,300 mg of sodium (approximately one teaspoon) of salt each day.
- Eat more fish: Fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids and has less saturated fat than meat. The Mayo Clinic suggests eating one-to-two servings of fatty fish (such as salmon) per week to help reduce the risk of heart disease (particularly sudden cardiac death). If fish is not to your liking, consider taking an omega-3 supplement, such as krill oil.
- Know your fats: Following a diet that is low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and trans-fat (partially hydrogenated fats) may include plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains, which can help keep your heart healthy and strong. Trans-fats should be avoided completely, since they have been known to raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower good cholesterol (HDL).
- Be a part-time vegan: Cutting animal products such as red meat, chicken, milk and cheese from your diet, one or two days per week, can significantly help in lowering your cholesterol.
- A little dark chocolate goes a long way: Finally, some good news for those with a sweet tooth. Pure dark chocolate (not the milk or white varieties) is a rich source of catechins—a heart-healthy antioxidant. Eating one ounce per day can satisfy your sugar cravings. Just be careful not to overindulge, since chocolate is high in calories and can sabotage your efforts.
- Reduce sugar and ease inflammation: Keeping your sugar intake to 6 grams per serving can help keep inflammation at bay. Knowing your C-reactive protein (CRP) numbers is a good way to monitor your inflammation levels, since constant low-level inflammation has been known to increase the risk of heart problems. Diets rich in foods that contain antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E also helps reduce the risk of inflammation.
- Take medications or supplements at the right time: Discuss this with your doctor or pharmacist. Cholesterol medication, for example, is best taken before bedtime.
- If you smoke―try to quit: Smoking only one-to-two cigarettes per day can significantly increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, or other serious conditions. The risk increases even further when combined with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity.
- Avoid second-hand smoke: Reports have shown that the inhalation of second-hand smoke increases your risk of coronary heart disease by 30%.
- Schedule regular dental checkups: A healthy mouth can lead to a healthy heart. Studies conclude that people who have their teeth professionally cleaned and scaled by a dentist or dental hygienist significantly reduce their chances of heart attack and stroke when compared to those who never had a dental cleaning.
- Recognize the symptoms of a heart attack: Crushing chest pain may be the classic symptom of a heart attack, but some people may experience discomfort in different ways. These symptoms include a squeezing sensation in their chest, pressure, shortness of breath, nausea and lightheadedness. Women may experience symptoms differently with pain in the arm, back and even their teeth. Don’t second-guess yourself. Seek immediate medical attention if you think you might be having a heart attack.
- Know your family history and risk factors: According to a recent study from the Center for Primary Health Care Research in Sweden, genes appear to be a major indicator in determining the potential risk of developing heart disease. Knowing your family history can give you the vital information you need to setting yourself on the fast track to a proper diet and exercise regimen.
- Recognize signs of impaired circulation: Atherosclerosis, or the hardening or narrowing of the arteries, causes reduced blood flow that can lead to heart attack, stroke and other conditions. If you are experiencing reduced blood flow in your limbs, or are a man who has erectile dysfunction, you may be suffering from peripheral artery disease (PAD). Schedule a complete cardiovascular check up to ensure your blood is flowing freely.
- Control your cholesterol: Check out the guidelines for healthy cholesterol numbers, issued by The American Heart Association.
- Keep blood pressure in check: High blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack, heart failure and stroke. Consult with your practitioner to see what blood pressure level is right for you.
- Manage diabetes: If you’re one of the millions of Americans who has been diagnosed with diabetes, you already know you have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, elevated cholesterol and blood pressure. And if you’re a woman, you’re at even a higher risk. Controlling your diabetes through diet and lifestyle changes, among other means, is key to keeping your diabetes under control. Check your blood sugar levels as directed and work with your practitioner for the best ways to manage your blood sugar.
Staying heart healthy begins with a healthy attitude, healthy lifestyle and knowing your risk factors. With American Heart Health month upon us, we can all make it a point to become more aware of our lifestyles by focusing on keeping our hearts and minds open to healthier ways to living a better life.