10 Ways to Help Keep Your Heart Healthy

February is American Heart Month, where focus is put on Heart Disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States and worldwide according to the CDC. In honor of American Heart Month, we are  kicking it off with a list of things you can do to increase heart health, and reduce your risk of heart disease. 

1. Reduce Your Sodium Intake

Sodium is necessary to carry out certain functions in your body like regulating the balance of fluids and the contraction of muscles. Despite this, too much of it can dehydrate you, harden your arteries, and raise your blood pressure. Most Americans, 90% of them in fact, consume too much salt. This means it is very likely that making your diet low sodium or at least making an effort to reduce your sodium intake is going to be beneficial to you. It is recommended that we consume less than 2,300 milligrams (about a teaspoon) of sodium daily, but on average Americans consume over 3,400 milligrams per day. The CDC estimates that over 70% of this sodium comes from processed food and food we eat at restaurants. Replacing these foods with more home cooked meals and replacing high sodium snacks with vegetables, fruits, or unsalted nuts can make all the difference. It may also be beneficial to check to see if a salt substitute is right for you, or turn to other ways to flavor your food like garlic or lemon juice. 

2. Eat more whole grains

Whole grains are an important staple of a heart healthy diet. They can help control many of the aspects that affect the risk of heart disease like blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and even your weight. One of the reasons for this is the high amount of fiber contained in many whole grain foods. Fiber is excellent at reducing the amount of bad cholesterol in the blood, and it helps prevent high blood pressure as well. Some easy ways to get more whole grains in your diet is to replace white bread with whole grain bread, white rice with brown rice, and cereal with oatmeal. 

3. Cut back on Sugar

You probably saw this one coming. High sugar consumption makes you much more likely to develop Type 2 Diabetes, and have other issues like obesity and high blood pressure. Reducing sugar intake can be one of the easiest areas to identify ways to improve, even if actually putting it into practice may not be as simple. Cutting out sugary beverages, snacks, and not having dessert as often will go a long way in decreasing your sugar intake, and have the added benefit of lowering your calorie count. Another option is to use alternative sweeteners, or replacing sugar with other natural sweeteners like pure maple syrup or honey, though you should still be careful and not consume too much of these either. 

4. Watch your portion sizes

Eating too much can make us lethargic and miserable in the short term, but the excess calories affect us in the long term as well once they are converted and stored as fat. Eating meals that are actually properly portioned is a good way to prevent this, and it can also help with cutting back on things like sodium. How many calories you need to consume daily can vary depending on many factors like your activity level, age, and whether or not you want to lose or maintain your weight. Generally, women that are moderately active should get around 2,000 calories and day, and men that are moderately active should get around 2,500. If you want to lose weight however, you need to decrease this amount by about 500 calories. Taking the guesswork out can be helpful, and there are many apps available that allow you to do just that by tracking the food you eat and telling you how many calories you are consuming.

5. Plan out your meals

The prior planning and even pre-preparing of meals can make it many times easier to actually accomplish the above points and maintain a healthier diet and lifestyle. Planning ahead allows you tailor your meals to fit what you need while cutting out the things you do not. It also makes it easier for you to stay on track, since you won’t have to make last minute decisions about what to do for dinner that ultimately lead to you going and getting a cheeseburger. 

6. Lose Weight

 Being overweight or obese is linked to every major risk factor for heart disease, and the risk increases as one becomes more overweight. Getting to a healthy weight and maintaining it can be difficult, especially for those that have tried time and time again with little success. Doing so can be one of, if not the most important thing you can do to prevent heart disease and lead a healthier life. We’ve already talked about how portion control and reduced calorie intake is a great way to start losing weight, but throwing in exercise will take it to the next level. Great ways to start are by making sure you hit a daily step goal with a step tracker (10,000 steps daily is considered active), or setting aside time every day to go on a 15-30 minute walk. 

7. Cardio

Walking is one of the many forms of aerobic exercise, all of which are great ways to lose weight. While walking is the easiest, other great cardio based exercises include running, swimming, biking, rowing, and boxing. These forms are more intense than walking, but they also will bring about even better results. Even if you just stick to walking, you will still get other benefits as well, like lower blood pressure, lowered cholesterol, improved blood and oxygen flow, and it will make your blood vessels and heart stronger. Try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise a week, or 75 minutes if you go for a more intense workout like running. 

8. Get quality sleep

Like most things related to your health, getting better sleep can have a positive impact on the health of your heart.  One of the reasons for this is that your blood pressure naturally decreases when you sleep, and since high blood pressure is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease, missing this blood pressure down time can be potentially dangerous. Sleep also helps control blood sugar, and even prevent unwanted weight gain. While everyone’s sleep needs are different, most adults should get 7-9 hours of sleep per night according to the National Sleep Foundation. If you have trouble sleeping try taking time to relax and destress before you go to bed with something like a bath or reading a book instead of watching TV or using your phone. Cutting back on caffeine can help as well, especially if you tend to have a caffeinated drink later in the day. 

9. Don’t Smoke

Smoking is bad for you in general, and along with the lung problems and increased risk of cancer, comes a negative impact on your heart. Smoking can cause a buildup of plaque in your arteries, increasing your blood pressure, and then at the same time cause damage to your blood vessels. The best solution to this is to never smoke in the first place, but the second best is to stop immediately and allow your cardiovascular system to begin healing. Quitting smoking can be difficult, but it’s worth it to pull out all the stops to quit if you need them. When a craving hits, going on a walk, chewing gum, or eating a healthy snack can help you fight off the urge to smoke, and help you hold out until you have overcome the addiction. 

10. Only Drink in Moderation

Drinking is also just bad for you in general, but heavy drinking can have a significant effect on your heart. One of the reasons for this is that drinking increases your heart rate even while you rest, which increases your risk of a cardiac event all by itself. It also can damage your heart muscle, which can in turn impede its ability to pump blood. When this happens your entire body is affected and it can lead to severe complications both in your heart and away from it. You don’t have to cut alcohol out completely, but sticking to only drinking in moderation is important to maintaining heart health. The CDC considers drinking in moderation to be 2 or less drinks a day for men, and 1 or less drinks a day for women, and less than that is even better.

The health of your heart is vital to your overall health, and these steps are a great start towards keeping your heart strong and preventing serious conditions like heart attack and stroke. Since heart disease is the leading killer, preventing it can be one the best ways to live healthier and live longer. 

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