February is American Heart Month, a time to focus on your cardiovascular health and to learn more about how you can prevent heart disease.
Did you know that 90 percent of the nearly 18 million cases of heart disease worldwide could be prevented? There are so many things you can do right now to help prevent heart disease later on including eating a healthier diet, getting regular exercise, and not smoking.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. with more than 659,000 people—or one in four deaths—dying from heart disease annually, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even with these grim statistics, there is positive news: with lifestyle choices, you have a lot of control over the major risk factors for heart disease. And it’s never too late to make changes. Making healthy lifestyle changes can be beneficial at any age, and you may even have the ability to reverse damage or minimize existing damage to your heart.
Assess your risk.
The first thing you should do for heart health is visit your doctor and get a baseline reading of three key health factors: blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels. These tools are often the only indicators that doctors have to determine a patient’s risk for heart disease. Three of the most common risk factors for heart attacks are high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol levels. Sometimes these risk factors present without any symptoms at all, so the only way to know if you are at risk is with regular screenings with your doctor.
Once you’ve established a baseline for these readings, your doctor will work with you to develop an individualized plan to monitor your health and work with you to make any changes if any of your readings were abnormal. These changes can include lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise, or in some cases, medications.
Maintain a healthy weight.
Weight is one of the strongest risk factors for heart disease. Being overweight or obese greatly increases your chances of a heart attack or stroke. If you are overweight or obese, losing the weight is crucial to protecting your heart. Depending on how much weight you need to lose, even minor changes to your diet can help.
Cutting down on portion sizes, avoiding heavily processed foods, increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, cutting down on red meat, and eating more nuts and fiber-rich foods can all help you lose weight and lower your heart disease risks. Limiting alcohol is also important in weight management as well as in protecting your heart.
A sedentary lifestyle is a big risk factor for heart disease. The best and easiest thing you can do for your heart health is to exercise regularly. Exercise burns calories, promotes weight loss, lowers cholesterol, and also conditions the heart just like other muscles in the body. Over time, with regular exercise, your heart will get stronger.
If you’ve not been a regular exerciser, don’t let that stop you. Just get moving. Any type of activity that you will commit to doing every day will help. Brisk walking is one of the best exercises to begin with, especially for those who have been sedentary for a while. Start with short walks around the block, and increase your time and distance as you become more fit. Aim for 30-60 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.
Don’t discount other activities either—things like doing yardwork or gardening or taking the stairs instead of the elevator at work all get you moving more and work toward that goal of being more active and strengthening your heart.
Chemicals in tobacco, even smokeless tobacco, can damage the heart and blood vessels. Smoking reduces oxygen in your blood, resulting in high blood pressure and a high heart rate because your heart is having to work harder to get enough oxygen to your brain and body.
Even if you’ve been a smoker for years, quitting smoking can reduce your risk for heart disease as quickly as one day after quitting. After a full year without smoking, your heart disease risk drops to approximately half that of a smoker. It’s never too late to quit. Speak to your doctor about tools and programs that could help you quit smoking.
Taking charge of your health and living a healthy lifestyle is the best way to protect your heart. With some thoughtful lifestyle changes, you can lower your risk for heart disease.