Heart disease (including stroke) is the leading cause of death for both men and women. And although you can’t combat every risk factor (such as family history, age, race), there are things you can do to avoid falling prey to heart disease - simple ways to help keep your heart in tip-top shape.
The following five tips are key to preventing heart disease and getting you on your way to a happy, healthy heart!Step 1: Get Physical
We all know that exercise is crucial to weight loss and weight control, but it is also extremely important when it comes to heart health. Regular exercise can reduce your risk of fatal heart disease by nearly 25 percent. Not only that, but when you combine exercise with other measures, such as maintaining a healthy weight, the benefits are even greater.
What does exercise do for your heart? Regular physical activity increases the blood flow to your heart and strengthens your heart’s contractions so that your heart can pump more blood with less effort. In addition, the weight control benefits of regular exercise can reduce your chances of developing other conditions that put your heart in danger, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. And finally, physical activity has been shown to reduce stress, which is another factor of heart disease.
How much is enough? Federal guidelines currently suggest that you get 30-60 minutes of moderately intense physical activity most days of the week. However, every little bit helps so don’t throw in the towel if you can’t meet those guidelines. And not all of that has to be running on the treadmill or attending a cardio class. Even everyday chores like housework, gardening and walking the dog count as physical activity. To obtain greater benefits, however, experts recommend increasing the duration, intensity and frequency of your workouts.
Step 2: Eat (and Drink) Right for your Heart
You know what’s coming . . . don’t you? Mom always said “eat your fruits and vegetables.” Well, she wasn’t wrong! Eating a diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy products can help protect your heart. Additonally legumes, low-fat protein choices and certain types of fish can reduce your risk of heart disease. Most of us probably don’t come close to getting enough of the good stuff, so try to work your way up to five to ten servings of fruits and vegetables per day.
So, that’s what you should eat. What about what you shouldn’t? The obvious answer for most of us is FAT. But not all fats are completely bad. In fact omega-3 fatty acids, which are a type of polyunsaturated fat, may actually decrease your risk of a heart attack and lower blood pressure as well as protect against irregular heartbeats. Omega-3’s are present in certain types of fish, certain “oils” (including flaxseed, walnut, soybean and canola) and a variety of nutritional supplements.
But the fat of the matter is, there are bad fats as well. Saturated and trans fats increase the risk of coronary artery disease by raising blood cholesterol levels. Recent studies have revealed that trans fat may actually be worse than saturated fat because it both raises LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowers LDL (good) cholesterol. The goal is to try to stay away from both of these kinds of fats. Sources of saturated fat include beef, butter, cheese, milk and coconut and palm oils. Sources of trans fat include deep-fried fast foods, bakery products, packaged snack foods, margarines and crackers.
Now onto the beverage section of Step 2 – alcohol. While recent health buzz has indicated that alcohol may actually be good for your heart, remember those benefits will only result if you drink in moderation. That is, no more than two drinks a day for men and one a day for women. Any more than that and your alcohol consumption becomes a danger to your heart health.
Step 3: Weigh In
As we get older, we tend to put on a few pounds each year. It may not seem like a lot, but as those pounds add up year after year you significantly increase your chances of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
But alas, the debate rages on – what is considered a “healthy” weight? One way to know is to calculate your BMI or body mass index to determine if you have a high percentage of body fat. BMI’s of 25 and higher are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke and higher blood pressure. Because the BMI does not necessarily take into consideration one’s muscle mass (muscle weighs more than fat and may throw off the accuracy of the measurement), another simple way to determine if you’re at a healthy weight is to measure your waist. A measurement of 40 or greater in men and 35 or greater in women is an indication that you are overweight.
Don’t fret – just as it took years to add on those pounds, it may take time to shed them. But even minimal weight loss can be beneficial to your heart health. Lowering your body weight by just 10 percent can decrease your blood pressure, lower your cholesterol level and reduce your risk of diabetes.
Step 4: Butt Out
It would seem this step is an obvious one – if you smoke, stop; if you don’t smoke, don’t start. But many of us don’t realize just how bad smoking can be for the heart.
Sharonne Hayes, M.D., who is a cardiologist and director of the Women’s Heart Clinic at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, advises that quitting smoking (or never starting) is “the most powerful, preventable risk factor for heart disease.”
Tobacco smoke contains a whopping 4,800-plus chemicals, which damage your heart and blood vessels by making them more vulnerable to narrowing of the arteries (which can eventually lead to a heart attack). Not only that, but the nicotine in cigarette smoke makes your heart work harder by constricting blood vessels and increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. The carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke replaces some of the oxygen in your blood which in turn raises blood pressure by forcing your heart to work harder to supply much-needed oxygen.
If you’re a woman, and you take birth control and smoke, you are at much more of a risk of having a heart attack. This risk increases with age, especially for women over 35.
Don’t lose hope, though. When you quit smoking, your risk of heart disease drops dramatically within just one year, no matter how long or how much you smoked.
Step 5: Visit Your Doc From Time to Time
So by this step you know that high blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage your cardiovascular system and increase your risk of heart disease. But unless you get tested for these conditions, you probably don’t know that you may be at risk.
It’s fairly standard whenever you go to the doctor to get your blood pressure checked, but if you’re not in the doc’s office very often make sure you’re getting checked at least every two years. If you have had high blood pressure in the past, or have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, you should have more frequent checks. The goal is to have blood pressure of 120/80 or less.
While blood pressure checks are routine, cholesterol checks usually aren’t. Adults should have their cholesterol checked at least once every five years. Again, if you have other risk factors or a family history of heart disease, you should get checked more often.
Now, that wasn’t so hard was it? Living a heart-healthy life can easily become a part of your daily life simply by incorporating these habits. Do so and you will experience many more Februarys to come!