Your heart spreads love to the people around you, but you may forget how important it is to take care of it. Unfortunately, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. If you’ve developed unhealthy habits, your heart could suffer the consequences – congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, and even cardiac arrest! So, have you been giving your heart enough love lately? If not, it’s time to start!
Time to Make a Change
February is American Heart Month. It’s a time to bring awareness to the fact that almost 50 percent of Americans have at least one of three key heart disease risk factors – high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, or smoking. The best plan is not to wait for a medical emergency but to prevent it from ever happening. So here’s what you can do to keep your ticker healthy.
What is Heart Disease?
Heart disease refers to several types of heart conditions. The different types of heart disease include:
- Coronary Artery Disease (CAD)
- Heart Arrhythmias.
- Heart Failure.
- Heart Valve Disease.
- Pericardial Disease.
- Cardiomyopathy (Heart Muscle Disease)
- Congenital Heart Disease.
Due to movies and tv, we think of heart attacks, heart failure, or arrhythmia as this dramatic, chest-clutching, red lights and sirens emergency event. But symptoms of heart disease can be frighteningly uneventful, sneaking up only once something is wrong or even not at all. Yes, silent heart attacks are a thing! So if you experience chest pain, upper back or neck pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea or vomiting, extreme fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, or swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen, or neck veins, call your doctor or visit an emergency room.
Tips for Keeping a Healthy Heart
Now is the perfect time to start taking care of your heart! But don’t feel like you need to make the changes happen all at once. Instead, tiny steps create small wins to reach your larger goal of better heart health. Here are a few ways to start down the path to a healthier you.
What’s Up, Doc?
Before you begin your wellness journey, you need to know your numbers. It is essential to schedule an annual check-up with your primary care provider. They will run a labwork and check your blood pressure. Everyone should know their baseline blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Once you know, you become empowered to understand your risks for developing heart disease. You can then focus on bringing your numbers into the target range through diet, exercise, or medication.
High blood pressure is a significant risk factor for heart disease. It is a medical condition that happens when the blood pressure in your arteries and other blood vessels is too high. The only way to know if you have high blood pressure is to measure it. You can have this done at the doctor’s office, local pharmacy, or purchase a home blood pressure cuff. If your high blood pressure is not controlled, it can negatively affect your heart and other major organs of your body, including your kidneys and brain.
Did you know prolonged or chronic stress increases cortisol, the stress hormone, and can wreak havoc on your health by compromising your immune system and contributing to many diseases including high blood pressure? Keep reading about the effects of how stress on your heart.
When taking your blood pressure, the first number, called systolic blood pressure, measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats and should be no high than 120. The second number, called diastolic blood pressure, measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart rests between beats and should be no higher than 80. You would read this as 120/80 mmHg or “one-twenty over eighty.”
Cholesterol is a waxy substance your body needs to make hormones and digest fats. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs, but we also absorb cholesterol from eating certain foods. Having high blood cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries, putting you at risk for heart disease and stroke. Just like with high blood pressure, high cholesterol has no symptoms and can only be measured through lab work ordered by your doctor.
- “Bad” cholesterol, or LDL, is the stuff that can build up and clog your arteries. Your LDL should be less than 100 mg/dL on your labwork.
- HDL, or “good” cholesterol, is called that because it picks up excess cholesterol in your blood and takes it back to your liver, where it’s broken down and removed from your body. Your HDL should be 60 ml/dL or higher on your bloodwork.
- Total cholesterol measures the total amount of cholesterol in your blood. Your total cholesterol should be less than 200.
- Triglycerides are a type of fat in the blood. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides. They are stored in your fat cells until they need to be released for energy between meals. This process works great if you get enough physical activity but becomes a problem if you regularly eat more calories than you burn. Normal triglyceride levels are typically below 150 mg/dL.
If any of these numbers get too high, you have a family history of heart problems, experiencing heart pain, or gum disease, you should schedule an appointment with a specialized heart doctor. A cardiologist only treats conditions and diseases of the heart.
Exercise is the Best Medicine
You know lifting weights can make your muscles stronger. Did you know doing cardio can also make your heart muscle stronger? You should be getting 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. Being overweight and having a sedentary lifestyle will significantly strain your heart over time.
Did you know that losing just 5% of your body weight dramatically lowers your risk of stroke, heart disease, and diabetes? For a 200-pound person, that’s only 10 pounds. You can do that!
Exercise is a great way to keep your heart in good shape and maintain a healthy weight! It can even help you stay off of medication. This is because exercise works like a beta-blocker over time by slowing the heart rate and blood pressure both at rest and while exercising. Add a few minutes of light to moderate physical activity into your schedule each day until you work up to 20 minutes a day!
Eat Healthy to Your Heart’s Content
In addition to physical activity, it is important to eat healthier to reduce your risk of heart disease. Avoid a diet high in sodium, processed foods, saturated fats, and sugar. Instead, try incorporating veggies, fruits, whole grains, fish, nuts, fish and seafood, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. When you combine eating better and exercising, you’ll lower your body weight and risk for chronic diseases.
For instance, if you want to have a snack, make it heart-healthy! Try swapping an unhealthy snack for a more nutritious one. For example, instead of a candy bar, try an apple. Instead of potato chips, how about some carrots with hummus? And remember to take portioned snacks with you to eat throughout the day to avoid overeating.
Ready, Get Set, Quit!
Chemicals in tobacco can damage your heart and blood vessels? The best way to protect your heart is not to smoke, vape or use tobacco or nicotine products.
If you smoke, motivate yourself by setting a day to quit. It could save your life! No one else can take action to quit but you. If you need assistance in quitting, talk to your doctor. He or she may prescribe NRT (nicotine replacement therapy) aids to help curb the cravings.
Count Your Z’s
Quality sleep is vital for keeping your body healthy. It’s true! Getting eight hours of sleep each night boosts your immune system, manages your hunger levels, improves memory, and reduces your chances of developing heart disease.
Need some help falling asleep? Practice ways to relax before you go to bed. Turn off the TV, put down the phone, listen to soothing music, or meditate –this can help you fall asleep and improve the quality of your sleep.
Spread the Love with an Accountability Partner
It’s hard to continue your way to wellness when you lack the motivation or you feel alone. Having support from friends and family is important to help you achieve your goals.
Here are a few examples to maintain a high level of motivation while encouraging the people around you to love their hearts too:
- Spread the love – Spend good quality time with your significant other, children, friends, family, or coworkers by planning a fun date together. Get active or cook a wholesome meal!
- Step your way to a healthier heart – Create a step contest with your friends or coworkers. See who can get the most steps each month. Make it extra fun by awarding prizes to those who excel!
- Set up an online support group – You’re not alone in this journey to a healthier heart. Make sure you let others know they have your support. All of you will become inspired by each other’s stories.
- Spread awareness – Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women. Raise awareness this month by actively talking about heart health and ways to keep the people around you healthy.
- Make a contract – Choose several family members who want to lose weight and make a contract to be healthier with them. Provide support and encouragement so you can love your hearts together!
Raising Awareness for Women
While heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both genders, it is important to spread awareness of heart disease in women as they often do not experience the same symptoms as men.
On February 4th, in support of women’s heart health, wear red to raise awareness. Your involvement could help decrease the incidences of heart disease and stroke! Go Red, from the American Heart Association.