Heart disease is still the leading cause of death among men and women in the United States. In fact, a new report from the American Heart Association finds 48 percent of American adults (which is about 121.5 million people) have some form of heart disease. The number of deaths tied to heart disease also increased from 2015 to 2016. But if you’re hoping to decrease your risk for heart disease and stroke, taking part in Heart Awareness Month activities is a good first step.
Heart disease can happen at any age and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of all Americans have at least one of the top three risk factors for heart disease (high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and smoking). The good news is these risk factors are controllable.
So, if you’re hoping to use Heart Awareness Month to raise awareness about heart disease and some critical lifestyle choices that will ultimately decrease your risk, it’s never too late to start. Here’s a look at some of the things you can change today.
February is American Heart Month and the perfect time to learn about the steps you can take to improve your heart health. Preventing heart disease starts with healthy eating. A healthy diet will include nutrient-rich foods packed with minerals and protein but are lower in calories.
The American Heart Association recommends eating a plant-based diet that includes:
- A variety of colorful fruits and vegetables: It’s recommended you eat at least four to five servings per day.
- Whole grains: They contain additional fiber, protein and other nutrients. Fiber causes food to stay in your stomach longer, so you feel full and your blood sugar doesn’t go up as quickly after you eat.
- Low-fat dairy products: The full-fat versions of cheese, milk, and butter often have high levels of saturated fat and salt, which can increase your risk for heart disease.
- Skinless poultry and fish: Limit your red meat intake. Red meats have more cholesterol and saturated fat than chicken and fish.
- Nuts and legumes: Beans are high in minerals and fiber. Nuts contain unsaturated, healthy fats and other nutrients.
- Healthy Cooking Oils: Canola, olive, corn and sunflower oils have healthier fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), which are better for your heart.
Limit saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat, sweets, and sugar-sweetened beverages. If you choose to eat red meat, compare labels and select the leanest cuts available.
Exercise is a structured and repetitive form of physical activity that can improve your cardiovascular fitness. You’ll benefit most from physical activity when it's intense enough to really boost your heart rate.
Activities such as swimming laps, taking a brisk walk, stretching and strength training are great, but there are also many everyday activities you can do to get your heart pumping and burn calories, too. Activities such as mowing your lawn with a push mower or bicycling are all considered moderate- and vigorous-intensity activities.
The new physical activity guidelines recommend you get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. This is equal to at least 22 minutes of movement each day.
You may not consider making this lifestyle change during Heart Awareness Month mainly because you may not be aware of the negative effects smoking has on your heart. In fact, your heart will benefit almost immediately if you quit smoking.
When you stop smoking, your risk for developing lung cancer and having a heart attack drop right away. Other heart-healthy benefits of quitting include:
- Your heart rate lowers.
- The amount of carbon monoxide in your blood returns to normal after 24 hours of not smoking.
- Your heart attack risk lowers after a few months because lungs are healthier.
- One year after you stopping smoking, you are 50 percent less susceptible to heart disease.
- After five to 15 years, your stroke and heart disease risks return to those of a lifelong non-smoker.
Smoking not only affects your heart — it does other harmful things to your body, which is just another reason to quit. Even if you have been smoking for many years, you’ll still benefit from quitting. It’s never too late to stop.
Heart Awareness Month is also a good month to schedule an appointment with your family doctor or cardiologist. You can use the time to come up with a personalized plan to decrease your risk for heart disease and stroke. You can start by looking through our heart disease guide. Inside you’ll find out how your blood pressure, blood sugar and body weight numbers can contribute to your risk for developing a serious illness.