February is all about the heart—and not just the kind you see on Valentine’s Day. As American Heart Month, it’s the perfect time to learn how you can lower your risk for heart disease. Coronary heart disease is the number-one killer for both men and women, so it’s crucial to take care of your heart at an early age. Here are 10 heart health tips to start you off on the right beat.
01. Know your genetics.
The best baseline for cardiovascular disease (CVD) prevention is educating yourself on your family’s history of heart health. “Having a father with heart disease before the age of 55 and a mother with heart disease before she’s 65 increases your risk significantly,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, director of women’s heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and author of Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart Healthy Life. When a sibling is diagnosed, the risk increases even more. The American Heart Association suggests researching family history back to your grandparents, as the environmental risks before them are not as relevant. You should also consider race—heart disease disproportionally affects African-American and Hispanic women, at almost twice the risk as other races.
With so much to do in so little time, relaxing can be hard. But slowing down will help your heart tremendously. Stress doesn’t just lead to hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure) and insomnia. It also can trigger unhealthy behaviors, such as excessive drinking, smoking, and overeating—all of which increase your risk for heart disease. Although stress is unavoidable, the way wehandle these stressors is within our control. “Find an activity that eases your mind, such as meditation or reading,” says Natalie Robertello, MS, RD, CDN. “It all adds up!”
03. Stay active.
Exercise drastically decreases your risk by reducing hypertension and keeping your heart in tip-top shape. “The heart is a muscle and needs to be used,” says Martha Gulati, MD, MS, FACC, FAHA, director of preventive cardiology and women’s cardiovascular health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Exercise for 30 minutes daily, or even in three separate 10-minute intervals.” Take some time to develop a fitness routine that works for you, even if that means starting with small exercise goals.
04. Avoid smoking.
We all know smoking does more harm than good, especially for the heart. The benefits of quitting start almost immediately: Within just 20 minutes, both heart rate and blood pressure drop. After just one year, the risk of CVD decreases by 50 percent. And don’t forget that secondhand smoking can be just as detrimental. “Even e-cigarettes haven’t been proven to be safe,” says Gulati.
05. Drink in moderation.
If you choose to consume alcohol, do so wisely. The National Institutes of Health recommends one drink per day for women. And although red wine has been shown to have some protective benefits, studies remind us to not fully depend on it for prime heart health. Alcohol is also linked to hypertension and a greater likelihood of other risky behaviors like smoking and unhealthy eating.
06. Monitor your cholesterol.
Excess blood cholesterol can form plaques in the arteries, making it difficult for blood to circulate. Know your numbers. A cholesterol panel is often part of a woman’s annual exam—if it's not, go at least every three years if no big lifestyle changes are present, says Steinbaum. “With family history [of CVD],” she says, “a rigorous preventative strategy will include more frequent check-ups.” The American Heart Association recommends less than 200 mg/dL for total cholesterol, and less than 100 mg/dL for LDL ("bad") cholesterol. For HDL (“good”) cholesterol, a level of 60 mg/dL gives some protection against heart disease.
07. Aim for a healthy weight.
A healthy weight can save your heart. Being overweight or obese increases cholesterol levels, especially if most of the weight is in the waist. On the flip side, being underweight can also cause health problems and put more pressure on your heart. “Using a Body Mass Index chart, a woman can assess what is a healthy weight for her body,” says Steinbaum. Make an effort to start forming wholesome life habits, like knowing how to shop for healthy groceries.
08. Limit saturated and trans fats.
Not only do foods high in saturated and trans fats raise cholesterol levels, but they’re more likely to be calorie-rich and nutrient-poor. Avoid fried foods, butter, and processed products and opt for lean meats and low-fat dairy. Stock up on fish, nuts, and avocados, which are full of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These can actually improve cholesterol levels, too. Pass the guacamole, please!
09. Increase your fiber intake.
According to a study in the Clinical Nutrition Journal, fiber intake has an inverse association with CVD. “Fiber works to capture and rid the blood of some cholesterol,” says Robertello. You’ll also feel fuller longer if you eat high-fiber foods throughout the day. To up your fiber consumption, chow down on high-fiber cereals, fresh fruits, and beans.
10. Hold the salt.
Cutting back on your salt intake will work wonders for your heart. The recommended daily allowance for sodium is 1,500 mg a day, yet the average American consumes a whopping 3,600 mg daily—more than double! It’s no wonder hypertension, which is associated with high-sodium consumption, impacts one-third of the American population. With more than 80 percent of sodium intake coming from processed foods, it’s best to eat out less and more at home. Limit boxed meals and frozen dinners and use spices instead of salt to satisfy your palate.
A healthy heart is a happy heart. Good luck!