Here we are in February already. We’ve gotten through the stress of the holidays and if you’re like me, you made promises to yourself to take better care of your health this year. So how’s that going for you? Hopefully, you’re making good on your promise to yourself.
Along those lines, February brings with it Valentine’s Day, and there is no better gift that you can give yourself, or your significant other, than a healthy heart. That’s why February is American Heart Month.
According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Some of the biggest risk factors associated with heart disease are uncontrolled high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking. Other conditions can also put you at risk for heart disease. For example, carrying around extra weight puts undue stress on the heart. High blood sugar or diabetes can damage the blood vessels that help control the heart muscle. Unhealthy eating and inactivity are also risk factors.
To lower your risk, there are several things you can do. For starters, you can eat better and reduce your sodium intake. One way to do that is to fill at least half your plate with fruits and vegetables and eat foods low in trans-fat and saturated fat. And be sure to include whole grains, poultry, fish, and legumes in your diet.
Limiting sweets and sugar sweetened beverages will go a long way toward improving your heart health as well. And be sure to always choose foods rich in potassium and to limit your intake of red meats. Also, limit alcohol to no more than one drink per day, if you’re a woman, and two drinks a day if you’re a man. If you enjoy cooking, research some healthier recipes you think you’ll enjoy and maybe try something new.
Another critical step you can take to lower your risk for heart related problems is to avoid second hand smoke. And if you smoke, STOP! Sure, that’s easier said than done, but there are many cessation programs that can help.
If you can’t partake in one of those, there are other ways you can break your smoking habit or at least cut back on your smoking. Changing your routine is one such way. Instead of having a cigarette after a meal, go for a walk or brush your teeth. You can also make a list of the reasons why you want to quit and read the list every time you feel the urge to smoke. If you smoke when you drink, cut down on alcohol which will help you avoid those moments.
Another way you can improve your heart health is by finding a hobby you enjoy that will get you moving for a few hours each week. Bicycling, walking or jogging, rollerblading, yoga, tennis, or any activity that gets your heart pumping will do the trick. Just be sure to choose something you actually enjoy. That way, you’ll actually look forward to the activity. Staying active and engaging in regular physical activity helps reduce blood pressure, helps control blood sugar, as well as helps control your weight. All of these will help you reduce your risk for heart disease.
It’s also important to have your healthcare provider do a blood test to measure your cholesterol levels. You will want to know your total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol as well as your triglycerides (blood fats). Having a higher level of HDL can lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. High levels of LDL on the other hand, can raise your risk because it can build up inside the arteries and form plaque which reduces blood flow. Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your body and a major energy source. High triglycerides can cause hardening of the arteries or thickening of the artery walls, increasing the risk of stroke, heart attack and heart disease. Ask your healthcare provider for ways to best manage your levels.
Finally, you want to try to reduce the stress in your life wherever possible. Meditation, yoga, performing deep breathing exercises, or taking a nice hot bath can all help with this. We live in a world that is constantly on the go. Stress is inevitable but if we can limit it, or try to control it, we can help protect our heart.