This Valentine’s Day, Prioritize Your Heart Health

Love may be in the air this month, but healthy habits can keep your heart beating strong all year
Woman making heart symbol with hands

With Valentine’s Day coming up, hearts are everywhere right now: At the grocery store, in the greeting cards aisle and on jewelry ads.

But the most important hearts are the ones you can’t see on the outside. February is also American Heart Month, which raises awareness for cardiovascular health.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, representing a full 20% of all deaths in 2020. Every year, more than 795,000 people have strokes and 805,000 people have heart attacks in the U.S., although statistics vary slightly from state to state.

Whether you celebrate the love day or not, don’t forget to keep your own heart in mind. Here’s what you should know about yours.

What causes heart disease?

Heart disease can impact people of all ages, races and genders. Major risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking. Other heart disease contributors include diabetes, obesity, unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity and excessive drinking.

Finally, people with congenital cardiovascular conditions or other major health concerns can also suffer from heart disease as a consequence.

Some types of heart disease are unavoidable, while others are preventable. Strokes and heart attacks are the leading culprits amongst heart diseases in the U.S. In fact, they are so common that a heart attack and a stroke separately occur every 40 seconds in the United States.

Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood away from your heart into various parts of your body, while veins bring back oxygen-depleted blood to your heart for reoxygenation. But when an artery gets clogged up by a blood clot or arterial plaque build-up, it can deprive your heart or brain of blood, potentially resulting in a heart attack or a stroke.

Here are 5 ways to protect this vital organ for a healthier, happier you this year and beyond.

5 ways to protect your heart health

Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Healthy eating isn’t always easy to do, especially in our fast-paced society. However, you don’t have to aim for perfection; balance is key, and even a few changes can make a big difference.

As a general rule, the following types of foods and ingredients add strain on your heart. This doesn’t mean you should never have them, but consider consuming them in moderation:

  • Salt (sodium)
  • Sugar, which are common in desserts and carbonated drinks but can even be found in savory foods such as ketchup
  • Saturated fats, which can often be found in animal products, especially cured meats
  • Trans fats, which can often be found in fried food such as french fries and potato chips

Meanwhile, foods high in fiber and low in saturated and trans fats can help you keep your blood cholesterol low, such as:

  • Dark green, leafy vegetables
  • Beans and other legumes
  • Lean meats and fish
  • Whole grains

Move your body on a regular basis

Prioritizing physical movement is crucial for various aspects of healthy living. This doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym for an hour every day, although some smartwatch users have found that monitoring their fitness activities motivates them to exercise more.

The Mayo Clinic recommends a weekly activity routine that includes at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking at a brisk pace; 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity such as running; and a minimum of two strength training sessions.

However, any movement is better than none, so focus on building behaviors that can be incorporated into your daily routine. Take the stairs at work every day instead of using the elevator, for example, or take a walk with the family after dinner before vegging out in front of the TV.

Limit your alcohol intake

Excessive drinking can lead to high blood pressure as well as a slew of other health conditions and potential safety issues. And medical experts define "moderate" amounts of alcohol consumption differently from what social norms suggest.

The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine recommends one drink per day for women, and up to two per day for men, with each unit of drink defined as 12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits. And people with preexisting health conditions should drink even less or avoid alcohol altogether, especially if they have heart failure or certain other heart irregularities.

Avoid stress

Stress is a major contributor to heart disease. Even if you make healthy choices in other major areas of your life, stress can add strain and inflammation to your body that damages your heart.

Chronic stress, for example, can impact your sleep hygiene and cause you to get less rest, have less time for your body to restore itself and impact your desire for healthy eating and exercise on a regular basis.

Prioritize your mental and emotional health as best as you can by seeking out a therapist, practicing meditation and other mindfulness activities, limiting high-tension interactions where possible and prioritizing your well-being.

Get regular health screenings

Most insurance policies include free preventive care screenings each year, particularly for heart disease. Even if you’re in good health, make sure you take advantage of your available checkups in order to establish a good baseline for health with your primary care doctor.

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