February is American Heart Month -- Did you know that each year one in four deaths in the United States is related to heart disease? There is good news though. Heart disease can often be prevented by making healthy choices and managing health conditions. In 2010, the American Heart Association identified seven health measures that can reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease. These include not smoking, being of healthy weight, eating a healthy diet, participating in regular physical activity, and controlling blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. These are all ideas that we know are good for us, but are difficult to implement in our daily lives. The sad fact is that only about 13% of US adults meet five of these criteria, and 5% meet six criteria. Trying to meet these goals takes hard work and dedication.
As February begins and we think about taking care of that special person on Valentine’s Day, it is also a good opportunity to make a heart healthy commitment to ourselves. Here are some small changes that you can implement to reduce your risk:
Schedule a visit with your doctor – It is important to see a doctor even when you are not sick. During this visit, be sure to ask about your heart disease risk factors. Ask to see your numbers, including a fasting blood sugar, a cholesterol panel, and your blood pressure, and then see what you can do improve them. Sometimes you need a medicine, and sometimes trying to eat better, exercise, or lose weight is the first treatment. If your doctor prescribes a medication, be sure that you understand why you need it, and if you have trouble taking it or having side effects talk to him or her before stopping it. Usually there is an alternative or other suggestion that can be offered. If the medication is for cholesterol, blood pressure, or diabetes, know that taking that medication, will also help to reduce your risk of heart disease.
Add exercise to your daily routine – For exercise to not feel like work, it has to become a part of your daily routine. This is more than just walking at work or cleaning the house. It is taking time out the day to do something just for you, to take care of yourself. Start off the month walking 15 minutes three times each week. Then, in a couple weeks, increase to 30 minutes each time. If you are enjoying it, you may find yourself wanting to jog, or add a day or two more each week. Just remember, each time you do it, it will get easier, and you never regret taking time to exercise.
Make healthy eating choices – Healthy meal planning takes effort. It is easy to pull into McDonalds or order a pizza for dinner instead of planning healthy meals for the week ahead, especially when we have busy lifestyles. Try to plan heart-healthy at home meals at least three times each week. Make sure to watch sodium content of your meal, as sodium contributes to high blood pressure. Good recipes to search for follow the Mediterranean diet ideals, emphasizing food like fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, high-fiber breads and whole grains. Meat, cheese, and simple carbohydrates should be limited.
Take steps to quit smoking – To quit smoking is to make one of the healthiest decisions of your life. Smoking increases your risk not only for heart disease, but also for lung disease and many cancers. There are many options to help you quit smoking from medications to decrease the urge to smoke, to nicotine replacement medications, to therapy. When you have decided it is time to quit, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss the best plan moving forward. Pick a stop date, and if you need additional support, call the Wisconsin tobacco cessation hotline,1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669).
Any of these changes that you implement can have additional benefits as well. Exercise releases endorphins, helping you to feel happier throughout the day, and is often used as a treatment for depression. Exercise and healthy diet also help improve sleeping habits. And, as discussed with smoking, not only does cessation reduce your cardiovascular risk; it also will reduce your risk for lung disease.
These may seem like small changes, but remember that small steps can make a big difference. Changes today can help you have a happy heart to celebrate Valentine’s Day with your loved one for years to come.