By Dr. Jessica Sapp
Associate Professor, School of Health Sciences, American Military University
February is about love and exchanging valentines with those you love. But February is also American Heart Month. According to a recent report, nearly half of U.S. adults have some form of cardiovascular disease.
Keeping our hearts healthy is important if we want to spend many Valentine’s Days with our loved ones. Here’s how.
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1. Eat Heart-Healthy Foods
Look for the heart-check food certification: The AHA heart-check certification helps consumers easily identify foods that are heart-healthy. When you see the AHA heart-check logo, you know the food meets four criteria included in the certification process. But not all red hearts on packaging are from the AHA heart-check certification, so be sure to look for the American Heart Association name.
Eat a mix of colorful fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants; you get different nutrients based on the color. Add colorful fruits and vegetables from the five main color groups: red & pink, blue & purple, yellow & orange, white & brown, and green. Eating fruits and vegetables regularly from these color groups is the best way to get all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you need.
Eat healthy fats: Fats is not a bad four-letter word. We all need fat in our diets, but we need to eat the good fats. The AHA recommends replacing saturated (bad) fats with unsaturated (good) fats as part of healthy eating. Also, we should avoid artificial trans fat, hydrogenated oils and tropical oils.
American Heart Association’s Love It, Limit It, and Lose It:
- Love It: Unsaturated (Poly & Mono) Fats
- Lowers rates of cardiovascular and all-cause mortality
- Lowers bad cholesterol & triglyceride level
- Provides essential fats your body needs but can’t produce itself
- Limit It: Saturated Fats
- Increases risk of cardiovascular disease
- Raises bad cholesterol levels
- Lose It: Artificial Trans Fat, Hydrogenated Oils & Tropical Oils
- Increases risk of heart disease
- Raises bad cholesterol levels
Limit salt and sodium intake: Extra sodium in your bloodstream pulls water into your blood vessels which increases the total amount (volume) of blood pumped by the heart. Having more blood flowing through your blood vessels raises your blood pressure. It’s like turning up the water supply to a garden hose — the pressure in the hose increases as more water is blasted through it. The recommended Daily Value for sodium is less than 2,300 milligrams.
2. Be Physically Active
Start walking: Walking is one of the simplest ways to get active and stay active. It’s low impact and can be done daily. According to the AHA, research has shown that walking can have a significant impact on your health by lowering your chances of heart disease.
Don’t sit for too long at one time: Our daily activities and tasks often include sitting – driving for your commute, working on a computer, emailing from your smartphone, or watching TV. Taking micro breaks can help get you moving, but it also improves focus and productivity.
Exercise regularly: Aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises contribute to heart health. Try to get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week. Add moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity such as calisthenics, resistance or weights at least twice a week.
3. Know Your Cholesterol and Blood Pressure Numbers
Check your cholesterol: Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood. Your body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells, but high levels of cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.
There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol, which is bad, and high-density lipoproteins (HDL) cholesterol, which is good. Too much of LDL, or not enough of HDL, increases the risk that cholesterol will slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain.
A complete cholesterol test — also called a lipid panel or lipid profile — is a blood test that can measure the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood. A cholesterol test can help determine your risk of a buildup of plaques in your arteries that can lead to narrowed or blocked arteries.
- Total cholesterol: A combination of LDL and HDL cholesterol levels. Total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL.
- LDL: The lower the LDL levels the better. LDL should be less than 130 mg/dL.
- HDL: The higher your HDL cholesterol the better. The optimum reading for HDL is 60 mg/dL.
- Triglycerides: Triglyceride is the main type of fat transported by your body. Triglycerides are a normal component in your bloodstream. After you eat, your body digests the fats in your food and releases triglycerides into your bloodstream. Triglyceride levels should be less than 150 mg/dL.
Check your blood pressure: In most cases, the damage done by high blood pressure (hypertension) takes place over time. High blood pressure if left undetected or uncontrolled can lead to health problems such as heart attack, stroke, and heart failure. The best way to know if you have high blood pressure is to have your blood pressure checked regularly.
Normal blood pressure is below 120/80 mm Hg. If you’re an adult and your systolic (upper number) pressure is 120 to 129, and your diastolic pressure (lower number) is less than 80, you have elevated blood pressure. High blood pressure is a pressure of 130 systolic or higher, or 80 diastolic or higher, that stay high over time.
4. Don’t Smoke or Vape
When you smoke, your arteries tighten, which makes your heart work harder. Smoking also can trigger an irregular heart rhythm and raise blood pressure, which are leading causes of stroke. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is a major cause of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and causes one in every three deaths from CVD.
- Raise triglycerides
- Lower good cholesterol (HDL)
- Make blood sticky and more likely to clot, which can block blood flow to the heart and brain
- Damage cells that line the blood vessels
- Increase the buildup of plaque (fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances) in blood vessels
- Cause thickening and narrowing of blood vessels
5. Lose Weight
Concerning heart health, being overweight or obese isn’t about looks. It’s about carrying excess weight to the point of straining your heart and raising your blood pressure, LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglyceride levels, lowering your HDL (good) cholesterol, and increasing your risk for diabetes.
Losing weight will help improve your overall health. The AHA says, “Losing as few as 10 pounds can lower your heart disease risk.”
According to the National Weight Control Registry, 98 percent of participants modified their food intake in some way to lose weight, and 94 percent increased their physical activity, with the most frequently reported form of activity being walking.
Go Red for Women
In 2004, the American Heart Association launched a global initiative to end heart disease and stroke in women. The American Heart Association says, “Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, killing more women than all forms of cancer combined.”
Remember GO RED to improve your heart health. Here are tips from the AHA website:
- G – Get your numbers: Ask your doctor to check your blood pressure and cholesterol.
- O – Own your lifestyle: Stop smoking, lose weight, exercise, and eat healthy. It’s up to you. No one can do it for you.
- R – Realize your risk: We all think it won’t happen to us, but heart disease kills one in three women.
- E – Educate your family: Make healthy food choices for you and your family. Teach your children the importance of staying active.
- D – Don’t be silent: Tell every woman you know that heart disease is our No. 1 killer.
About the Author
Dr. Jessica Sapp is an associate professor in the School of Health Sciences at AMU. She has over 15 years of experience in public health, working in various environments including government, hospitals, health insurance, community, international, corporate and academia. Jessica earned her D.P.H. in health policy and management at Georgia Southern University and a M.P.H. in health promotion, education and behavior at the University of South Carolina. She also has a B.S. in health science education from the University of Florida.