Doctor listening to patients heart

American Heart Month: Try These Tips to Stay Heart Healthy

Woman taking pulseFebruary is American Heart Month, a time to focus on cardiovascular health and learn more about how to keep your heart healthy. Heart disease is our nation’s number one health risk, and it affects all ages, genders and ethnicities. Cardiovascular disease, or heart disease, refers to conditions that affect the heart or blood vessels. It includes conditions ranging from peripheral artery disease to heart attacks and strokes. The biggest risk factors for cardiovascular disease are high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, obesity, uncontrolled diabetes and lack of physical activity.

Heart disease is the leading cause of hospitalization in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system. It is also a major cause of disability among Veterans. Of particular importance to Veterans is an association between heart disease and other diseases that often affect them, including diabetes, spinal cord injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. VA offers several evidence-based programs to help Veterans manage heart conditions.

Make Heart Health a Regular Part of Your Self-care Routine

You can take an active role in reducing your risk for heart disease by starting some heart-healthy habits today. The American Heart Association (AHA) encourages people to take control and manage seven heart disease risk factors through lifestyle changes, to help achieve ideal cardiovascular health.

Living an active lifestyle has many rewards, including a healthier heart.

1. Manage Blood Pressure

The first step to managing blood pressure is to understand what the levels mean and what is considered normal, elevated or high. Most visits to a health care provider include a blood pressure reading. You can also take readings at home on a machine that can be purchased at most pharmacies or stores that sell over-the-counter medicine. Blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day, so it’s good to take several readings at different times. Get the facts about blood pressure from AHA and learn more about how to get your blood pressure in a healthy range.

2. Control Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body needs for good health, but at high levels, it can lead to plaque in your blood, which can clog arteries and cause heart disease and stroke. It is found in foods from animal sources only. Unhealthy cholesterol levels are often caused by lifestyle habits, such as unhealthy eating patterns, in combination with the genes you inherited from your parents. Routine blood tests can show whether your cholesterol levels are healthy. Heart-healthy lifestyle changes, sometimes combined with medicines, are effective in reducing cholesterol levels and maintaining a healthy range. Learn more about cholesterol and the lifestyle choices you can make to manage it.

3. Reduce Blood Sugar

Your body turns most of the food you eat into glucose, a type of sugar, and uses it for energy. However, when blood sugar gets too high, it can damage your heart, eyes, kidneys and nerves. Your health care provider can take your blood glucose readings and provide recommendations. High blood sugar levels can lead to a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. If you’re diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, you will need to monitor your blood sugar level regularly. Some tips for managing your blood sugar include eating a healthy diet of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, lean protein and fish. Limit sweetened drinks, foods with added sugars, fatty foods, processed meats and sodium.

4. Get Active

Living an active lifestyle has many rewards, including a healthier heart. According to AHA, adults should get a weekly total of at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, spread throughout the week. Find ways to add physical activity to your day, for example, bike instead of drive; take the stairs instead of the elevator; park farther away from the door to add some steps; do 10 jumping jacks every morning, take a mid-day walk for some fresh air and a mental break. If you set some realistic fitness goals and make small, lasting changes, you will set yourself up for success.

5. Eat Better

Heart shape cut out of appleFollowing a healthy diet is one of your best choices for protecting yourself against cardiovascular disease. AHA recommends making smart choices and healthy swaps to build an overall healthy eating style, watch calories and eat smaller portions. Enjoy plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, plant-based proteins, lean animal proteins, skinless poultry and fish. Limit sweetened drinks, sodium, processed meats, refined carbohydrates, full-fat dairy products, eggs, highly-processed foods and tropical oils like palm and coconut. Avoid trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils. Learn how to read nutrition labels and compare products to make the healthiest choices.

6. Lose Weight

Being overweight puts a burden on your heart, lungs, blood vessels and bones. By losing weight, you not only help your heart, but you will likely enjoy a higher quality of life. Understanding how many calories you eat in relation to your activity level can help you identify changes you want to make. To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you take in. Notice if you’re eating out of habit, stress or boredom instead of real hunger. Slow down while eating and pay attention to your satiety level, or how “full” you feel. Some people overeat because they eat too quickly, taking in more calories than they need. Body Mass Index (BMI) is a numerical value of your weight in relation to your height. It can help you know whether you’re at a healthy weight or need to lose weight. You can calculate your BMI online or see your health care provider.

7. Stop Smoking

People who smoke cigarettes are at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease. If you smoke, quitting is the best thing you can do for your heart and your overall health, potentially adding years to your life. There are many avenues available for getting help with quitting smoking. AHA says people are more likely to quit for good if they prepare for the cravings, urges and feelings that come with quitting. Nicotine is a highly addictive chemical, and your body will need to get used to being without it again. Many people find support groups and hotlines helpful when quitting tobacco. Sometimes just knowing that someone understands and shares your struggle can help you stay smoke-free for good. Explore some of AHA’s resources to help you quit.

Get Heart Healthy, Starting Today

The good news is that in most cases, heart disease is preventable when people adopt a healthy lifestyle. Talk to your health care provider about your risk for heart disease. Work with your health care team to prevent or treat any medical conditions that may lead to heart issues. Learn more about preventing heart disease and take charge of your heart health today.

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