February is National Heart Month, and the perfect time to review how you might improve your heart health. Approximately half of Americans have at least one of the main risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. The good news is that all of these risk factors can be reduced with changes in lifestyle. Here are some tips to help you beat the odds:
Not only does smoking put you at risk for various cancers, it is a leading cause of heart disease, and has been directly linked to 20 percent of all US deaths from heart disease.
See Your Doctor
Know the state of your health by seeing your doctor for regular physical exams and when you are experiencing health problems. Note your numbers for your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglycerides—and know what they mean. (Ask your doctor to explain.)
Move Every Day
Your heart is a muscle—and should be exercised just like the rest of your body in order to stay in the best shape possible. If you’re not overweight, aim for a total of half an hour of moderate physical activity (walking, biking or swimming) at least five times per week. If you’re overweight, raise the bar to 60 minutes a day, each day to help you burn more calories than you eat.
Change Your Diet
Here are the basic guidelines for a heart-healthy diet at a glance:
• Eat eight servings of fruits and vegetables a day. That sounds like a lot, but in this case, one serving is considered a small carrot or apple or half a banana. By eating a colorful spectrum of produce (red, green, orange, yellow, white, and even blue or purple), you’ll help ensure you’re getting a range of heart-healthy nutrients.
• Know your fats. Avoid “bad fats” that clog arteries—these are the saturated and trans fats found in meat and dairy products, as well as vegetable fats that are liquid at room temperature. Replace these with “good fats” or mono and polyunsaturated fats, which can actually help lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Good fats are found in olive oil and canola oil, nuts, olives, avocados and more.
• Choose lean protein over red meat. When it comes to protein sources, red meat carries the highest risk of heart disease as well as cancer and overall mortality—so choose fish or skinless poultry over beef, pork and lamb.
• Get your omega-3s.These heart-friendly nutrients are found in oily fish like salmon, sardines and herring. Try for two servings a week, and/or get your omega-3s in supplements.
• Put down the salt shaker. Processed food like frozen dinners and canned soup, as well as restaurant-prepared food, is loaded with salt, which raises your blood pressure—a major risk for cardiovascular disease. So check your food labels: the American Heart Association recommends 1,500 milligrams of sodium for African Americans, middle- and older-aged Americans, and those with high blood pressure. Everyone else should aim for less than 2,300 milligrams a day—that adds up to about a teaspoon of table salt.
Improve Your Attitude
Lastly, specific personality traits have been scientifically linked to heart disease. The “risky” traits include depressed, angry, impatient and tense. If you can change these characteristics through coping with emotions and stress, you can greatly reduce your risk. Taking a class in meditation, tai chi, and yoga can help, as can regular exercise, deep breathing exercises, and listening to calming music.
By changing just one or two of your habits at a time to incorporate the tips in this list, you can help safeguard the health of your heart—in February and year-round.