How Can You Keep Your Heart Healthy? - This is a question many of us ask ourselves, especially if heart disease runs in your family, as it does in mine. According to the CDC, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. Every year roughly 735,000 Americans have a heart attack. Although there are risk factors that you cannot control such as age, sex, or family history, you do not have to accept heart disease as your fate. By adopting a healthy lifestyle today you can avoid potential heart disease in the future. Here’s a list of habits that you can, and should, incorporate or change in your life for optimal heart health and well-being.

1. Don’t Smoke - In a nutshell, tobacco narrows the arteries and damages the inner lining of blood vessel walls which causes the arteries to harden. This hardening of the arteries is due to plaque buildup called atherosclerosis. When blood is cut off from the heart, the build-up of plaque will create blood clots, which, in turn, results in disease and heart attacks. There really is NO benefit to smoking. Quitting will give you peace of mind and add many days to your life, sometimes even years. My aunt was able to quit after 25 years of smoking. She went to her doctor and together they worked out a program for her that’s actually working; now she looks and feels better too. It’s pretty astonishing. If you are looking for more reasons to quit this, is great information.

2. Exercise for Heart Health - Exercise doesn’t have to be formal. Movement and motion are key and can be integrated into routine activities. Take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk to work if that’s feasible, do sit-ups or crunches while you’re watching TV, or even turn on some music videos and start dancing! Make exercise a pleasure and not a chore. Taking up a sport or hobby is so much simpler than joining a gym.

3. Eat Heart Healthy Foods - Our relationship to food is complex. We want food to nurture us and we want it to be pleasurable. But too often, pleasure becomes overindulgence and stems from a refusal to get back to the basics. Cooking and eating real food, not processed junk food, should be first priority. Fruits and vegetables need to be part of every meal, including our snacks. I love red meat, and I can have lean red meat once or twice a week. I don’t deprive myself at all - I still indulge in rich desserts, but my diet is really balanced. I eat breakfast every day - a little lean protein, some fruit and oatmeal. I eat salads for lunch and I’ve pretty much cut out sugar. I honestly believe sugar is the main culprit of most healthcare issues in relation to the American diet. Cut out the added sugar and incorporate fresh and healthy foods into your diet, and you will see energy and vitality return to your life.

Healthy Heart

4. Develop a Ways to Overcome Stress - This is my favorite tip. Everyone faces stress - whether it’s work or finances or other people. Everyone needs a release, not just exercise, but an actual practice that reduces stress. Examples of this range from meditation, prayer, contemplative walks, or taking up hobbies like gardening, birdwatching, swimming or dancing.

5. Maintain a Healthy Weight - The National Institute of Health says that reducing your weight by even just 5-10% can make a significant and positive improvement on your health. Being overweight puts you at risk for many diseases, including heart disease and diabetes. It is important to know your key weight metrics: body mass index (BMI) and weight circumference. You can read more about this here.

6. Don’t Drink Excessively – Drinking alcohol in excess (meaning more than one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women) may raise triglyceride levels in your blood. These fats in the blood clog arteries and can lead to stroke and cardiac arrest over time. And here’s a scary fact: “Both binge drinking and long-term heavy drinking can lead to strokes, even in people without coronary heart disease.” You can read more about this topic here.

7. Go to the Doctor and Find Out Your Numbers — specifically your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Know what is normal and what you need to do if you have hypertension. This is a great article about understanding your blood pressure readings and knowing what is normal and healthy and what is not.

8. Take a Risk Assessment - Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. If you know your risk factors you can begin to change your behaviors and attitude. Empower yourself! Here is my favorite.

9. Get Enough Sleep. - People overlook the role of sleep and how it affects your health. If you’re not getting at least 6-9 hours of sleep (some of us need more, some less) you are not recharging your body. Your body is like a machine and needs periods of rest to recharge. There are also several correlations between the lack of restful sleep in relation to stress and weight gain since losing sleep can lower your metabolism. This is a great reference on how much sleep is good for your health by different age categories.

These are great tips for living a healthier life. If you have to make one change today quit smoking, if you are a smoker. It is by far the most difficult, but it makes the biggest impact almost immediately. What I found as a nurse is that making even one small change can lead to big changes across the board. Be good to yourself and stay healthy!