February is American Heart Health Month. So, what better time to talk about cardiovascular health and discover some of the things we can do every day to make our hearts stronger? Taking good care of your heart is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your loved ones, so it’s important to identify healthy habits to adopt — and unhealthy ones to break.
Before we do, let’s look at some heart-related facts:
- President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed February American Heart Month with the first official one being February 1964.
- One person dies every 37 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease.
- Your heart pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood each day.
- Approximately 647,000 Americans die from heart disease each year — representing one out of every four deaths.
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
- Heart disease costs the United States about $219 billion each year (based on data from 2014-2015).
- Laughing is good for your heart because it reduces stress and boosts your immune system.
With the above statistics in mind, there’s no question that Americans need to be more tuned in to their own heart health, and to learn more about what they can do to prevent heart disease and promote better cardiovascular health.
The most effective things we can do for healthy hearts center around exercise, diet, and stress management.
Exercising to improve cardiovascular health
Starting up an exercise regimen can seem daunting. But in reality, just 30 minutes of daily activity can significantly improve cardiovascular health. Aerobic exercise and resistance/strength training are two of the most effective things you can do to strengthen your heart, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Aerobic exercise improves circulation, which results in lowered blood pressure and heart rate. Aerobic, or cardio exercises, include walking, running, bicycling, swimming, kickboxing, hiking, and even cross-country skiing and dancing.
In addition to its heart-health benefits, cardio exercise has also been proven to reduce the chance of developing diabetes and some cancers, and to improve emotional health by reducing stress and combating depression and anxiety.
Aerobic exercise need not be complex or necessitate purchasing special equipment or gym memberships. While treadmills, elliptical machines, rowers, or stationary bikes can all be used, they are not necessary to a successful workout. If you’re just beginning to add cardio exercise to your routine, walking 20-30 minutes 5 days a week is a great place to start.
Resistance training (strength training) touts many cardiovascular benefits too. It can help reduce fat and create leaner muscle mass. Because muscle burns fat, it can help in maintaining a healthy weight, which is beneficial to overall health. Research shows that a combination of aerobic exercise and resistance work may help raise HDL (good) cholesterol and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.
The American Heart Association recommends strength training at least two (non-consecutive) days per week. You can choose simple, weight- bearing exercises using free weights or machines, or you can use resistance bands, or even your body’s own resistance.
If you are starting an exercise routine for the first time, it’s always suggested to check with your doctor regarding the safest and most effective exercises for you.
Eating for heart health
Most of us know that what we put into our bodies is just as important as the amount of exercise we get. Like new exercise routines, diet changes can seem daunting. But they don’t have to be. Even basic diet changes can make a difference in your health. Eating right can also boost your mood and improve oral health.
Eating fresh fruits and vegetables is good nutrition advice all around. But when it comes to cardiovascular health, these nutrients are crucial.
Leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale and collard greens are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. A number of studies have shown that increasing your intake of these types of vegetables can lower the risk of heart disease. Not surprising considering leafy greens are one of the best sources of vitamin K, which protects arteries and promotes proper blood clotting.
When it comes to fruits, berries top the list for heart health. They’re rich in antioxidants, which protect against the development of heart disease. So add some strawberries, blueberries, blackberries or raspberries to your next breakfast — or reach for a handful to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Whole grains are another staple of heart health because they are an excellent source of fiber and nutrients that contribute to healthy blood pressure. Adding whole grains to your diet can be as simple as substituting refined breads and pastas with healthier whole-grain versions. You can also add foods such as quinoa or barley to your diet.
Choosing low-fat protein sources is another great way to improve cardio health. Protein is necessary fuel for our bodies, but the high fat content that often comes along with it can be detrimental to arteries and the heart overall. Skip that high-fat steak and reach for a lean cut of chicken, fish, or a serving of low-fat dairy. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, don’t forget that legumes, such as bean, peas, and lentils, are also great protein sources.
What to avoid for heart health
We’ve covered some of the key things you should be doing for heart health, so now let’s touch on some of the things you’re better off avoiding. Some are obvious, while some are more difficult to avoid.
Avoiding smoking. One-third of coronary disease related deaths can be linked to smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, according to the American Heart Association. The chemicals in tobacco smoke damage blood cells and the structure and function of blood vessels. All of this increases your risk of atherosclerosis, or a dangerous build up of plaque in the arteries.
Excessive alcohol consumption should also be avoided. Alcohol increases blood pressure, which is a major risk factor in heart attack and stroke. Heavy drinking also weakens the heart muscle, decreasing its blood-pumping efficiency.
Processed foods are also best avoided in the quest for heart health. Recent studies link processed foods with an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular events.
Finally, reducing stress is a key part of a heart-healthy lifestyle. Stress releases adrenaline, a hormone that elevates heart rate, increases breathing, and ultimately causes blood pressure to rise.
Of course, reducing stress isn’t quite as simple as cutting out sugar or carbs because it isn’t always a factor we can avoid or control. Still, it’s important to try to limit emotional and other stressors and to find healthy outlets for dealing with stress. Relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga are healthy alternatives to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as smoking, alcoholism, or overeating.
The path to better heart health doesn’t have to be conquered all at once. Adopting just one or two of the tips in this article is a great way to take part in American Heart Health Month. By continuing to adopt additional healthy habits, you will improve your cardiovascular health for a lifetime.