Thanks to Valentine’s Day, February seems to be all about hearts. But there’s a different kind of heart that deserves a celebration—that special organ inside each and every one of us.
You may not know, but February is American Heart Month, and it’s all about protecting yours from illness and disease. When heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, it doesn’t hurt to start taking care of yours sooner rather than later.
Heart disease is progressive, which means what you do today sets the tone for your heart health tomorrow. Adopting these daily habits in your twenties and thirties will make all the difference in your later years.
01. Ease up on the stress.
For most women, their twenties and thirties are full of life changes and major transitions such as big moves, new jobs, and fresh relationships. While it’s exciting, it’s also a lot to handle—and too much of it can take a toll on your heart.
The National Institute of Mental Health shares that constant stress is linked to high blood pressure and diabetes. These conditions happen to be major risk factors for heart disease, according to the National Lung, Blood, and Heart Institute. Chronic stress can also bring on unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as poor diet, excessive drinking, and smoking, which increase the risk for heart disease.
Fortunately, stress is possible to manage. Begin by making tiny changes every day such as frequent breathing exercises, stretching, meditation, staying hydrated, and avoiding caffeine over consumption. When you feel the stress coming on, take a moment to de-stress right at your desk.
And of course, you don’t have to do it all by yourself. Dr. Chileshe Nkonde-Price, MD, MRCP, assistant professor of medicine and director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, reminds us that friendships are a major stress reliever. “As your responsibilities increase, focus on friendships with people that you know you can count on,” she shares. “This has tremendous heart health benefits.” Make an effort to cultivate relationships and good conversation. Nurturing your social health can treat your heart health well.
02. Get active.
Exercise helps the body strengthen and protect itself all over; your heart is one of the first to benefit. When you exercise, your heart pulls oxygen from the blood for the fuel it needs to keep pumping. Your blood flow improves, reducing the risk for arterial clogs. Plus, exercise improves cholesterol levels and gives you more energy, Regan Jones, RD, a registered dietitian in Georgia and blogger at Healthy Aperture tells us. All the endorphins can also help ease stress.
A thirty-minute workout five times a week is ideal, according to the American Heart Association. You can even split them up into short ten-minute sessions throughout the day. Incorporate more exercise into your daily life in small ways. If you’re not currently physically active, a simple walking routine can do the trick. Park at the far end of the parking lot or hop off the bus one stop earlier. Rev up your morning with a few jumping jacks. Keep up these practices, and they’ll transform into lifelong, heart-healthy habits.
03. Drink in moderation.
Our nights are often full of happy hour cocktails and girls’ nights. If you drink alcohol, be mindful of your daily consumption. To protect your heart, Dr. Nkonde-Price recommends that women consume no more than one alcoholic drink per day. More is linked to a spike in blood pressure and triglyceride (“bad” cholesterol) levels. It’s also associated with heart failure and stroke.
Does this mean a night of drinking equals heart disease? Not necessarily. But when it becomes a habit, the damage will accumulate over time. Practice moderation by alternating with water or giving yourself a drink limit. Your ticker will thank you.
04. Don’t smoke.
Unlike alcohol, there isn’t a recommended intake for cigarettes, unless we’re talking zero.
“The carbon monoxide [of cigarettes] robs the heart, brain, and veins of oxygen,” Dr. Nkonde-Price says. It also damages the blood vessels, creating a condition known as atherosclerosis. The blood becomes sticky and forms plaque, which hardens over time. As a result, oxygen-rich blood isn’t able to properly reach your heart. It’s a recipe for stroke and heart failure. Dr. Nkonde-Price notes that this risk is even greater for women taking oral contraceptives.
Secondhand smoking is just as dangerous. “Secondhand smoking increases the risk for heart disease by 25 to 30 percent,” Dr. Nkonde-Price says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that it was responsible for 34,000 cardiac-related deaths each year during 2005 to 2009 in the United States. Yikes.
If you’re a smoker, consider this: Quitting smoking before age 40 reduces your risk of smoking-related death by about 90 percent, according to Dr. Nkonde-Price. That’s pretty amazing.
05. Limit sodium.
What you eat is a major player in the heart health game. Wondering what to watch out for on the nutrition label? Dr. Nkonde-Price suggests keeping an eye on sodium, an ingredient linked with high blood pressure. Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure is responsible for 45 percent of cardiac-related deaths in the U.S. Whereas the recommended sodium intake is 1,500 milligrams a day, the average American consumes about 3,600 milligrams daily.
Because more than 80 percent of sodium intake comes from processed and boxed foods, your best bet is to avoid these convenient but dangerous options. Sure, it may be easy after a long day at work. But that frozen dinner will only satisfy you for so long. Invest in wholesome, real food instead.
Are your taste buds craving more? “Go to town with herbs and spices,” Dr. Nkonde-Price suggests. “You’ll ditch the salt in no time.”
06. Increase fiber intake.
Fiber is most often known for keeping our digestive health in check. But it has another claim to fame: keeping the heart in tip-top shape. Duffy MacKay, ND, senior vice president at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, shares that fiber is essential for maintaining a strong heart. “It does this by managing cholesterol levels,” he shares. Fiber improves cholesterol by reducing low-density lipoprotein, also known as “bad” cholesterol, according to Mayo Clinic. Because LDL facilitates the formation of plaque, high levels create the perfect setup for damaging blood vessels.
For women, the Institute of Medicine recommends 25 grams of fiber per day, but the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that Americans only consume an average of 15.6 grams each day. Fuel up on fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans. Choose whole-grain products over white and refined.
07. Limit saturated and trans fats.
Like sodium, saturated and trans fats are the stars of processed products, fried food, animal meats, cheese, and butter. Swap these out for healthy fats in lean meats, low-fat dairy, and a generous helping of fruits and vegetables (at least half your plate). To maintain a healthy heart, the AHA suggests a saturated fat intake of no more than 6 percent of total calories. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Americans consume about 12 percent of their total calories as saturated fat.
As for trans fats? The CDC recommends keeping this intake to zero, if possible. Much like saturated fats, the average American intake is much higher—0.6 percent of daily caloric intake. Because these fats raise cholesterol levels, they’re not the best for a healthy heart.
Aim to fit healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats into your daily grub. These fats, which improve cholesterol levels, are found in nuts, avocados, and fatty fish such as salmon and sardines. Top off your toast with avocado, or snack on almonds. Cook up salmon steaks on Sunday to divvy up throughout the week.
It’s never too early to care for the only heart you’ve got. With these habits, you can treat yours well during February and beyond. Happy American Heart Month!
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