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9 Ways to Keep Your Heart Healthy

by Debra Fulghum Bruce, PhD

In order to live a long, healthy life we need to keep our "ticker" strong. Many deaths due to diseases of the heart often go unnoticed because there are no visible symptoms. So it’s important to do all you can to keep your heart in tip-top shape by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising daily, eating healthy, and reducing sodium intake. Also, educate yourself about your body by getting regular checkups and knowing your risk factors for heart disease.

See Your Doctor Regularly

You're feeling healthy, so why should you see the doctor? There are plenty of reasons. There could be underlying issues going on that could lead to huge problems later if not taken care of early—when treatment works best. Did you know that each year about 1.2 million people in the U.S. have a heart attack and 50 percent of them are fatal? To avoid being a statistic, it’s important for you to get your weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol checked, as well as go over your family history of heart disease with a physician. Based on the findings, you’ll know your risk factors for heart disease and possibly even be given medications to lower your chances of a heart attack.

Check Your Blood Pressure Often

High blood pressure is considered a "silent killer" because it typically has no symptoms. Therefore, it’s vital to know your blood pressure numbers. Blood pressure is the force your blood exerts on the inner walls of your arteries as it flows through them. The test is a measure of how much blood your heart pumps and how resistant to blood flow your arteries are. The result comes out as two numbers, written one atop of the other measuring millimeters of mercury. You've heard the lingo before: "130 over 80", but what does that mean? The top number indicates the systolic pressure, which is the pressure during a heartbeat. The bottom number is the diastolic pressure, the pressure when the heart relaxes between beats. A normal blood pressure is 119/79 or lower. Blood pressure that is 140/90 is considered high blood pressure. You can control high blood pressure through healthy lifestyle changes and medications, if needed.

Know Your Cholesterol Numbers

High cholesterol is another "silent killer," with little to no symptoms until it’s too late. Knowing your numbers is important because, if untreated, an excess of the bad type of cholesterol can cause an increase in heart attacks, strokes and heart disease. Cholesterol screenings are recommended every 5 years. There are two types of cholesterol: low density "bad" lipoproteins (LDL) and high density "good" lipoproteins (HDL). LDL (bad) sticks to the arterial walls, causing plaque buildup that can lead to narrowing or obstructions. HDL is good because it protects against heart disease by removing excess LDL from the bloodstream. For total cholesterol, a normal number is less than 200 mg/dL and high is considered over 240 mg/dL. For LDL, normal is considered less than 100 mg/dL and high is 160-189 mg/dL. Normal HDL is 60 mg/dL or higher and high is 40 mg/dL or less. Having a high HDL is actually a good indicator and doesn't mean you have high cholesterol.

Stay at a Healthy Weight

Maintaining a healthy weight is more important than just for the slimmer waistline. It also reduces the strain on your heart and circulatory system, as well as lowers triglyceride levels, and your risk for heart disease. In order to maintain a healthy weight you need to eat a healthy diet, exercise, and get about 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. Stress can also cause an increase in weight gain when food is used as a stress reliever. Instead, learn to manage your stress levels in healthy ways such as with meditation, yoga or deep breathing.

Eat a Variety of Healthy Foods

Remember the old saying "you are what you eat"? Well, it’s basically true. To be healthy, you must eat healthy. By filling the body with good foods, your ticker will be happy, too. When you shop for groceries, think whole, fresh foods rather than processed ones. Stay away from cereals and pre-packaged snacks which tend to be loaded with extra sugar and calories. Opt for lots of colorful veggies and fruits, such as kale, spinach and berries. Lean proteins like chicken and fish are great, as are legumes. Also, choose low-fat dairy items. Whole wheat breads, pastas and brown rice are excellent choices for whole grains as well. Loading up on fiber will help keep you feeling full throughout the day as well as move things along in your digestive tract. Don't think you have to give up fat, though. Just choose healthy fats like avocados, olive oil and dark chocolate. And don't forget plenty of water. Substitute water for sugary sodas and juices. If water bores you, try flavoring it with freshly squeezed lemon, cucumber or mint.



Get Up and Get Moving

Physical activity is important for heart health. The American Heart Association recommends getting 30 minutes a day, five times a week. But don't let the numbers scare you; an exercise regimen doesn't have to be a big ordeal. The idea is to just get moving, rather than sitting all day. You can start by doing small physical activities in 10-15 minute intervals. It can be as simple as parking your car farther from the entrance to a store, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or doing arm exercises between errands with light weights. You can even incorporate movement into watching your favorite TV show by doing triceps dips off the couch as you watch or ab crunches on the floor during commercials. Every little bit counts toward calorie burning and better health. As you get more ambitious, you can start walking with a friend or taking a spin class at the gym. Do you love to dance? Try a barre or Zumba class. The idea is to have fun while working out so you’re more inclined to stick with it.

Go Fish!

According to the American Heart Association, you need to eat fatty fish at least two times a week. Fatty fish is an excellent source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s have been shown to lower blood pressure, slow the growth rate of plaque inside the arteries and to lower triglyceride levels. Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna.

Stop Smoking

As difficult as quitting smoking may be, do it for your health. The health benefits of smoking cessation begin as quickly as 20 minutes after you stop. Try these tricks:

  1. Pick a date in the near future to stop. This will give you time to mentally and physically prepare. Know your reasons for stopping, whether it be to get healthier or to live longer for your kids.
  2. Tell your family and friends that you’re stopping and that you’ll need their support.
  3. Anticipate and plan for challenges you’ll face while quitting. Know your triggers of what makes you feel like smoking so you know how to deal with them when they come up. Be prepared for the cravings and what you’ll do instead. Also prepare yourself for the uncomfortable feelings that will arise such as depression, irritability and anger.
  4. Remove cigarettes and all items that remind you of smoking such as lighters and ashtrays. Also, clean your house, car and clothes thoroughly so the smell of them is erased as much as possible.
  5. Talk to professionals about quitting options. You don't have to go at this alone. Quitting is hard and there are plenty of options available such as medications, gum and lozenges that can help you when you need an extra push.

Manage Your Stress

Stress is an unpleasant fact of life. But how we choose to handle it can wreak havoc on our heart health. Often, people manage their stress by overeating, smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. All of those behaviors can cause an increase in blood pressure and damage to artery walls. It’s important to find healthier ways to cope with your stress. Ideas include meditation and relaxation, exercise, not smoking, eating right, positive affirmations, or finding hobbies you enjoy doing. Studies also show that having a pet can relieve stress and lower blood pressure – a great reason to get that pet you’ve been dreaming of.

Healthy Heart Checklist

  • See your doctor regularly to catch problems before they're too big.
  • Know your blood pressure, cholesterol levels.
  • Eat healthy foods and exercise daily.
  • Lose weight and stay at a healthy weight for your size.
  • Manage your stress and stop smoking cigarettes.