February is a month for the heart, but we’re not just talking about Valentine’s Day. It is also American Heart Month, a national health observance sponsored by the American Heart Association. Heart disease and stroke are the nation’s No. 1 and No. 5 killers, respectively.
Fortunately, there are many things we can do in our daily lives to reduce our risk of these serious and potentially fatal conditions. Here are 14 in honor of Valentine’s Day and American Heart Month:
- Add spice. Pass on the salt and season your food with spices instead. Did you know that more than 75 percent of the sodium Americans consume is estimated to come from processed foods and not from salting food?
- Break a sweat. Physical activity plays an important role in preventing heart disease and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise, or a combination thereof. Aim for 30 minutes, five times a week. Need help? Check out the American Heart Association’s “From the Couch to the Pavement—A Plan to Get You Moving.”
- Quit smoking. Smoking is the most preventable cause of premature death in the United States and increases one’s risk for many chronic disorders, including atherosclerosis, which can lead to coronary heart disease and stroke. Talk with your doctor about quitting, or visit smokefree.gov to get started.
- Destress. While more research is needed to determine the role of stress in heart disease, the American Heart Association states that stress may affect behaviors and factors that increase heart disease—for example, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, smoking, physical inactivity and overeating. Add positivity to your life with AHA-recommended habits listed at heart.org. And ease acute tension with the AHA’s “Four Ways to Deal with Stress.”
- Maintain a healthy weight. Being obese puts you at higher risk for heart problems. Work with your doctor to determine what weight is healthy for you and how to achieve it.
- Cook from the heart and for the heart. Prepare heart-healthy meals for yourself and your loved ones. For delicious ideas, check out the recipes listed in the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Keep the Beat: Deliciously Healthy Dinners and ¡Platillos Latinos Sabrosos y Saludables! Delicious Heart Healthy Latino Recipes PDFs, which are available at nhlbi.nih.gov.
- Sit for a bit. More specifically, meditate. Studies show that the relaxation response from meditation can help lower blood pressure and improve heart rate, among other positive effects. Remember that part about stressing less? Meditation can be one way to help with that.
- Cut the fat. At least limit the unhealthy ones (i.e., saturated and trans fats). Doing so can help reduce your blood cholesterol and lower your risk of coronary heart disease. Ways to cut unhealthy fats can include limiting solid fats such as butter, margarine and shortening; trimming fat off meat; and choosing lean meats with less than 10 percent fat; and checking food labels.
- Rethink fat. Use monosaturated fats such as olive oil or canola oil when cooking with fats, and add healthy fats and fiber to your diet through foods like ground flaxseed, which studies have shown to lower cholesterol in some people.
- Eat your fruits and veggies. They are rich in dietary fiber and contain substances found in plants that may help prevent cardiovascular disease.
- Think strength. Add some resistance training to your weekly exercise routine. Aerobic or cardiovascular activities are often associated with heart-healthy exercises, but strength training is also good for your heart. Why? When you lift weights at moderate intensity, you can increase your heart rate.
- Stay in bed longer. According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep is “essential for a healthy heart.” Those who don’t get enough sleep are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease. One study found that those who slept fewer than six hours per night were almost twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those who slept six to eight hours per night.
- Know your risk. Certain factors can increase your risk for heart disease and stroke, some of them are beyond your control (e.g., gender and heredity) and others are controllable (e.g., diet, physical inactivity, smoking). Become familiar with your risk, and adjust your lifestyle to lessen the risk factors you can control. Use the American Heart Association’s Heart Attack Risk Assessment Tool for a basic risk assessment—it is not intended to replace professional medical advice, however.
- Visit the doctor. Talk with your doctor about your heart health and risk factors for heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular issues, and get recommended preventive care screenings.
American Heart Association. “American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults.” Last updated Aug. 17, 2015. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/PhysicalActivity/FitnessBasics/American-Heart-Association-Recommendations-for-Physical-Activity-in-Adults_UCM_307976_Article.jsp
American Heart Association. “Stress and Heart Health.” Last reviewed June 2014. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/StressManagement/HowDoesStressAffectYou/Stress-and-Heart-Health_UCM_437370_Article.jsp
Healthfinder.gov. “February: American Heart Month.” https://healthfinder.gov/NHO/FebruaryToolkit.aspx
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Heart-Healthy Diet: 8 Steps To Prevent Heart Disease.” MayoClinic.org. March 18, 2015. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-healthy-diet/art-20047702
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “Keep the Beat: Heart Healthy Recipes from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.” Date of publication: 2003. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/resources/heart/ktb-recipe-book
National Sleep Foundation. “How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Heart.” https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/how-sleep-deprivation-affects-your-heart
 American Heart Association. “American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults.” Last updated Aug. 17, 2015. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/PhysicalActivity/FitnessBasics/American-Heart-Association-Recommendations-for-Physical-Activity-in-Adults_UCM_307976_Article.jsp
 American Heart Association. “Busted 7 Salty Myths.” http://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@fc/documents/downloadable/ucm_469427.pdf
 American Heart Associaiton. “Why Quit Smoking.” Last reviewed Feb. 2015. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/QuitSmoking/QuittingSmoking/Why-Quit-Smoking_UCM_307847_Article.jsp
 American Heart Association. “Obesity Information.” Last reviewed Feb. 2014. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/WeightManagement/Obesity/Obesity-Information_UCM_307908_Article.jsp
 Davis, Jeanie Lerche. “Meditation Balances the Body’s Systems.” WebMD. Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD. http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/transcendental-meditation
 Mayo Clinic Staff. “Heart-Healthy Diet: 8 Steps To Prevent Heart Disease.” MayoClinic.org. March 18, 2015. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-healthy-diet/art-20047702
 Walters, Jennipher. “Top Quick Heart-Healthy Fitness Tips.” Go Red For Women. https://www.goredforwomen.org/live-healthy/heart-healthy-exercises/top-fitness-tips-for-getting-heart-healthy/
 National Sleep Foundation. “How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Heart.” https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/how-sleep-deprivation-affects-your-heart