From the candy-shaped ones to the one inside your body, hearts take center stage during the month of February. As you find ways to show your loved ones how much you care on Valentine's Day, don't forget to show yourself - and your heart - some love, too.
February is American Heart Month. It's a full month to appreciate how hard your heart works for you each day. It's also a perfect time to return the favor by improving your heart health to prevent heart disease.
One of the best ways to care for your heart is to commit to a heart healthy lifestyle. Fortunately, that's a lot simpler than you might think. While you don't need any fancy equipment or expensive programs, you do need dedication, awareness, and a whole lot of self-love.
Here are 5 simple changes you can make for your heart during American Heart Month (and year-round).
1. Stop smoking once and for all.
Smoking is the number one preventable cause of death and illness in the US. It damages almost every organ in your body from your lungs to your eyes to your digestive organs to - you guessed it - your heart.
With every puff of a cigarette, you inhale more than 7,000 chemicals (70 of which are linked to cancer). Many of these chemicals directly damage your blood cells, as well as limit the function of your heart and blood vessels. As a result, your risk of atherosclerosis - when a waxy substance (called plaque) builds up in your arteries - increases.
Eventually, plaque can harden and narrow your arteries, making it difficult for blood to make it to your heart and other organs. This can lead to heart attack, heart failure, or death.
The bottom line? Put the cigarette down. There is no denying how damaging smoking is to your heart. It may be tough to quit, but consider how difficult it will be to recover from a heart attack instead.
If you're unsure how to quit, talk to your healthcare provider. With the right plan - and proper support - you can kick the habit and improve your heart health immediately. Chester County Hospital also offers smoking cessation programs to support your journey.
2. Eat wholesome, unprocessed foods.
Forget the fancy diet plans - a heart-healthy diet is a lot simpler than you might think. Plus, it's one of the best ways to fight heart disease. Good nutrition can help you control your cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight - all of which play a role in your risk for heart disease.
To start, load up on nutrient-rich foods such as:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains (like brown rice, quinoa, and oatmeal)
- Low-fat dairy products
- Poultry and fish without skin
- Nuts and legumes
Then, avoid unhealthy foods that are high in:
- Saturated fat, like butter, ground beef, and french fries
- Trans fat, like cakes, cookies, and microwave popcorn
- Sodium, like bread, sandwich meat, and soups
You should also limit how much red meat and sweets you consume.
Another key to heart-healthy eating is to avoid highly processed foods (like frozen pizza and canned soup), which are often jam-packed of sodium, sugar, and unhealthy fats. By cooking more meals at home, you'll have more control over what you eat.
And remember - there are plenty of easy heart-healthy replacements, such as cut-up veggies over chips, fruit instead of candy, and leftover roasted chicken rather than processed deli meat.
3. Stop overcomplicating exercise.
From zumba to yogalates to obstacle courses galore, there are a million different ways to engage in exercise. While unique classes and fancy equipment can be fun, they aren't necessary to staying physically active every day - a critical part of keeping your heart in tip-top shape.
Rather than overcomplicating exercise, simply make sure you're physically active each and every day. Just 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity can help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol to help you maintain a heart-healthy weight.
Easy ways to incorporate exercise into your daily routine include:
- Take the dog for a walk. No dog? Bring your partner, child, or friend along instead.
- Multitask on your walk by taking a work call or listening to your favorite podcast.
- Get moving during your favorite television show or while watching the news. You can do yoga, lift weights, or do bodyweight exercises as you tune in.
- Walk to destinations instead of driving.
- Workout with an online exercise video. If you're too busy to fit it all in at once, split the workout into two or three segments.
4. Let go of the stress.
Stress is an often overlooked - but critical - factor in your heart health. While stress is inevitable from time to time, not managing it properly can be harmful to your heart.
To start, stress can increase your risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol. What's more, it can make you more likely to make unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as overeating, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, and not getting enough exercise.
If you find that you're dealing with high amounts of stress, try to identify what's triggering it. Then, look for ways to cope, such as:
- Managing your time - and saying "no" when you're overwhelmed
- Finding ways to relax, such as deep breathing or meditation
- Making time for yourself on a regular basis
- Avoiding alcohol and drugs
- Talking to someone you trust, such as a friend, family member, counselor, or your healthcare provider
5. Sleep in. Seriously.
Each night as you snooze, your body restores, recharges, and recovers from the day. If you cut yourself short on sleep, you can do serious damage to many aspects of your health, including your heart health.
As you sleep, your heart rate slows down, your blood pressure drops, and your breathing becomes stable - all of which allow your heart to relax and recuperate. Without enough sleep, you may increase your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart attack.
On top of all that, lack of sleep can disrupt hormones that control how hungry you are. As a result, you might be more likely to make unhealthy choices, such as overeating and eating high-calorie foods.
At the same time, don't oversleep. One study found that people who slept 10 hours a night were twice as likely to have a heart attack.
In general, you should aim to get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep. This may mean going to sleep earlier, sleeping in later, or simply improving your quality of sleep through simple changes like investing in blackout curtains or disconnecting from electronic devices 30 minutes before bed.
Small Changes, Big Impacts on Your Heart Health
Caring for your heart is one of the most important jobs you have - but it's not the most complicated. Minor changes in your lifestyle can have major impacts on your heart health now and for many years down the road.
This American Heart Month and every month, take the time to care for your heart. After all, it's been caring for you for your entire life.
Do you have questions about how to improve your heart health? Call 610-431-500 or request a call back to meet with a heart specialist at Penn Heart and Vascular at Chester County Hospital.
Take our online heart risk assessment to estimate your heart age and risk of heart disease.
Related Information from Chester County Hospital: