February is American Heart Month, but taking care of our hearts should be a year-round endeavor. Certain risk factors, like age or a family history of heart disease cannot be changed. However, there are a variety of things you can do to reduce the likelihood of a heart attack or a stroke. They include:

  • Regularly measuring your blood cholesterol
  • Keeping your weight under control
  • Regularly exercising
  • Quitting smoking

CHOLESTEROL AND BLOOD PRESSURE

Your health care provider can measure your blood cholesterol with a simple blood test, along with taking your blood pressure, and determining if your weight is in a healthy range. These numbers are helpful if you are going to tackle your heart risk factors. Controlling high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure significantly reduces the risk of heart attacks and stroke, according to heart disease specialists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Diet modifications and exercise may also reduce these risk factors. Your doctor may also recommend prescription medications.

WEIGHT AND DIET

These may sound like simple things to control, but they present some of the biggest challenges to your health. Obesity is an overwhelming problem in this country. Fortunately, even a small amount of weight loss, if you are overweight, can help lower your risk for heart attack or stroke. A heart-healthy diet includes:

  • Fruits, vegetables and whole grains
  • Lean meats, poultry, fish, and beans
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy products

Try to avoid foods with saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, and added sugar.

EXERCISE

In addition to eating a healthy diet, add regular exercise to your routine. The NIH recommends at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. However, as little as 30 minutes of daily exercise can protect your heart. Try a variety of exercises to keep yourself from getting bored-- a brisk walk, running, swimming, or dancing. Even taking the stairs instead of an elevator will give your heart a good workout and make a difference.

KICK THE HABIT

Finally, if you are a smoker...quit today! Cigarette smoking is directly linked to 30 percent of all heart disease deaths in the United States each year. It’s not easy, and not everyone can kick the habit the same way. Ask your health care provider for help.


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