Show your heart some love this month and build healthy habits that will last you a lifetime.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), heart disease is the leading killer of both men and women in the United States, claiming one life every 36 seconds. February is designated as Heart Health Awareness Month and marks an opportunity for Americans to review their lifestyle habits and take steps to improve their overall cardiac health. Good heart health extends to good health elsewhere in the body. After all, your heart is responsible for circulating blood to other organs. The stronger your heart, the stronger your brain, liver, stomach, kidneys, and other essential organs.
We’ve compiled a list of healthy heart habits you can start incorporating into your day-to-day life this month, and turn them into routines for the months and years to come.
Heart-Healthy Diet Habits
Along with exercise, diet is one of the two major cornerstones to keeping your heart healthy. Even little tweaks here and there can have a huge impact on maintaining your body’s overall functionality. Heart-healthy diets emphasize nutrient-rich ingredients and dishes that reduce the amount of buildup in your arteries, and typically avoid excess fats and calories. If you want to adapt to a heart-healthy diet, either immediately or gradually over time, we recommend taking the following actions:
- Eat processed whole grains (like whole wheat flour and brown rice) in place of carbohydrates (think white flour and white rice).
- Choose low-fat dairy products, such as skim or 1% milk or no-fat Greek yogurt, over their full-fat counterparts.
- Choose skinless fish and poultry options in place of red meats and pork. Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, cod, and trout are especially heart-healthy.
- Use olive oil, avocado oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, or other oils low in saturated fats. Harvard Health offers a helpful chart on which cooking oils to choose.
- If you must eat red meat and pork, choose the leanest cuts.
- Limit your sodium intake and choose low-salt options whenever they’re available.
- When buying canned goods, choose brands that pack in water rather than oil or syrup and do not add sugar or excessive salt into the mix.
- If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation. It is recommended to only drink occasionally, and only have one or two drinks.
- Incorporate more nuts, legumes, and fresh produce into your meals and snacks.
- Avoid putting sugar and/or cream in your tea and coffee.
- Avoid fried foods.
- Avoid any foods containing preservative, trans fats, or added sugars.
In addition to making the aforementioned changes to what goes on your plate, you also need to be mindful of how much you’re putting on your plate. Harvard Health’s Healthy Eating Plate chart illustrates the ideal distribution of whole grains, proteins, fruits, and vegetables you should try to consume at every meal. Pay close attention to the nutrition labels on the foods you purchase, especially if they’re canned or premade. One unit may contain multiple servings. The FDA’s guide to reading nutrition labels provides a valuable overview on what factors to consider when shopping at the grocery store, including portion sizes and the amount of sodium, trans fats, sugars (and added sugars), cholesterol, and other important factors.
For more information about how to incorporate wholesome, heart-healthy foods into your diet, the American Heart Association has extensive guidelines regarding what to look for while planning meals before heading to the grocery store.
Heart-Healthy Exercise Habits
Transitioning to a heart-healthy lifestyle is about more than making the right choices at meal and snack time. The best habits for your body—not just your heart—involve burning more calories than you consume each day. Exercise also helps optimize the flow of oxygen in your bloodstream. We recommend adopting one or more of the following routines to get your heart pumping, no trip to the gym necessary:
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible.
- Get about 30 minutes of moderate walking, running, or jogging in per day.
- Go cycling for about 45 minutes to an hour. This can include biking outdoors or at home on a stationary bike or desk cycle.
- Go swimming for about 45 minutes to an hour if you have safe access to a pool.
- Do yoga. While yoga doesn’t count as cardio, it makes for a great supplement to a regular workout routine by loosening up muscles and promoting better oxygen flow.
- Jump rope for 15 to 20 minutes. According to WebMD, this time is all it takes to burn off one standard-sized candy bar.
Johns Hopkins University recommends about 150 minutes of heart-pumping cardio per week for optimal heart health. When combined with a heart-friendly diet, a regular exercise routine is the recipe for the strongest, healthiest, happiest you possible.
Other Heart-Healthy Habits
Although diet and exercise are the two major factors in improving and maintaining your heart’s overall functionality, there are other habits that serve as valuable supplements capable of optimizing your results. When you want to feel your best, we recommend considering some of the following:
- Quit smoking. The CDC offers a comprehensive guide on cessation to help improve your heart, lung, and brain health. Avoid secondhand smoke as well.
- Reduce your stress and anxiety levels. This may involve seeking therapy, taking up meditation or yoga, or making major lifestyle changes like getting out of toxic environments.
- Maintain a healthy weight for your height, if possible.
- Get sufficient sleep. Sleeping too little can increase your stress levels and lead to overeating or leaving you too exhausted to exercise.
- Keep your teeth clean and go to the dentist regularly. Gum disease is an overlooked risk factor in heart disease.
- Go to the doctor regularly. In addition to receiving the necessary tests, your doctor can provide you with medical advice specifically tailored to your physiology—and not just for your heart.
When you take charge of your health, you’re more likely to influence the people around you to do the same, too. A healthy life for you can lead to a healthy life for the people you love most. We encourage you to spend Heart Health Awareness Month auditing your lifestyle habits and making adjustments to improve your heart. Your family and friends will thank you. You’ll thank yourself.