February marks the 54th anniversary of American Heart Month, launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. This year, the American Heart Association wants you to know that “You’re in Control.”
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, but it doesn’t have to be. With healthy lifestyle changes, you can reduce your risk of developing the disease. And, if you were already diagnosed, these changes help improve your quality of life and should even help you live longer.
As always, talk to your doctor before making any significant changes to diet and exercise.
1. Get Moving to Fight Heart Disease
There aren’t a lot of things doctors seem to agree on, but the need for regular physical activity makes the list. All you need is 30 minutes a day of moderate activity, five days a week to enjoy the health benefits of a more active lifestyle.
When it comes to exercise, it’s best to look for something you enjoy doing. Take a walk around your neighborhood, ride a bike, go swimming, hit the dance floor, whatever you want to do, just aim for 150 minutes each week. Spend around half of that time performing weight-bearing exercises to help strengthen bone and muscle.
Weight-bearing does not mean weight lifting, although you can lift weights if that’s what you prefer and your doctor approves. Instead, weight-bearing is any exercise that literally bears your weight: walking, jogging, dancing, even housework qualifies. Swimming and biking do not.
If you currently aren’t able to exercise for 30 minutes at a time, don’t worry! You get the same benefits if you spread those minutes throughout the day. And, if you can only handle 10 minutes a day in the beginning, that’s okay, too. Any amount of physical activity is good for your heart. And, your strength and stamina will improve. Eventually, you’ll have no problem hitting that 30-minute guideline.
2. Quit Smoking for Your Heart
People who smoke a pack a day are twice as likely to die from heart disease as their non-smoking friends. That’s because cigarettes contain hundreds of chemicals that damage your heart and blood vessels, which causes your arteries to narrow due to plaque buildup.
Cigarette smoke also contains carbon monoxide, which replaces a percentage of the oxygen in your blood. The result is an elevated heart rate and increased blood pressure. In other words, a smoker’s heart has to work harder.
The good news is that, once you quit smoking, your risk drops rapidly. In fact, within 15 years, your heart disease risk is nearly identical to that of a lifelong non-smoker.
3. Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet
Although following a heart-healthy diet is simple in principle, it can be difficult in practice. That’s because the average American diet is loaded with unhealthy foods, particularly processed and pre-packaged items.
Consider the following dietary changes to reduce your risk of heart disease:
- Aim for five to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, with at least one serving of vegetables with every meal.
- Reduce trans fat consumption by cutting back on prepackaged foods (chips, cookies, etc.) as well as bakery items and fast food.
- Reduce red meat consumption to once or twice a week, focusing on lean cuts whenever possible. Replace red meat with white meats and fish.
- Limit dairy to one or two servings per day.
- Drink alcohol in moderation.
- Replace trans fats with healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil, and coconut oil.
- Reduce sugar consumption by drinking water instead of soda.
- Reduce caffeine by drinking herbal tea (0 mg of caffeine) or green tea (35 mg) instead of black tea (70 mg) or coffee (95 mg).
4. Maintain a Healthy Weight for a Healthy Heart
The United States is in a full-blown obesity epidemic, with nearly 40 percent of adults qualifying as obese. All that extra weight forces your heart to work harder, raising your risk of heart disease and early death.
Luckily, the diet and exercise changes recommended here should lead to weight loss. Again, talk to your doctor before implementing major changes.
5. Sleep More and Stress Less
Around one-third of Americans don’t get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Sleep is when your body repairs itself; your body needs that downtime every night.
About the same number of people feel that they live with extreme stress. Many rely on bad habits to deal with stress – overeating, smoking, and drinking to excess are common short-term stress relievers with long-term consequences.
You can reduce stress with techniques that can also help you get a good night’s sleep.
- Take a warm bath about an hour before bed. The warm water relaxes you and the cool you feel when you get out of the tub signals your body that it’s time to sleep.
- Turn off the TV at least an hour before bed, and put away your electronic devices. Try reading instead.
When you feel stressed during the day, try taking a brisk walk or climbing stairs, or any other physical activity that takes you away from the stressor for a few minutes.
Final Thoughts on Preventing Heart Disease
The goal of American Heart Month is to get people thinking about their risk of heart disease and what they can do to reduce it. In addition to the above tips, we also recommend regular health screenings to test your cholesterol levels and blood pressure. If you receive Medicare benefits, your coverage includes a yearly wellness exam, so take advantage of it.
If you’re over the age of 18 and considered high risk, ask your primary physician for an annual blood pressure test. And all adults, regardless of age, should have their cholesterol tested at least once every five years. It is also a good idea to begin diabetes screening once you reach age 45 and then do retesting every three years.