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February challenge: 28 ways to boost your heart health

February may be the shortest month of the year, but it is a very important month for one of your most important organs: your heart. February is American Heart Month, and what better way to celebrate than taking healthy steps to improve your own heart’s function and efficiency.

Did you know that every day, your heart beats about 100,000 times and sends about 2,000 gallons of blood surging throughout your body? Even though this organ is no larger than your fist, it is mighty; it keeps blood flowing through the 60,000 miles of blood vessels that constantly supply your organs and tissues. For perspective: Earth, measured at the equator, has a circumference of approximately 25,000 miles. Just let that sink in.

Let’s show our hearts appreciation by taking better care of them—starting today. Here are some things you can do (not listed in order of importance):

Eat healthy fats, not trans fats

Broadly speaking, there are two types of trans fats found in foods: naturally-occurring and artificial. Naturally-occurring trans fats are produced in the gut of some animals and foods made from these animals (e.g., milk and meat products) may contain small quantities of these fats. Artificial trans fats (or trans fatty acids) are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid.

The primary dietary source for trans fats in processed food is “partially hydrogenated oils.” Look for that phrase in the ingredient list on food packages.

Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. It’s also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Healthy fats include: Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, lake trout, mackerel, herring, anchovies, and sardines), olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds.

Practice good dental hygiene (especially flossing your teeth daily).

Dental problems may not immediately come to mind when we think of heart disease, but cavities and other periodontal diseases can lead to heart disease in the future. Make sure your mouth and your heart stay healthy by brushing at least twice a day and flossing at least once a day. And don’t forget those dental checkups!

Get enough sleep (7-9 hours a night).

Short sleep—less than six hours a night—appears to be especially hazardous to your heart health, says Dr. Susan Redline, the Peter C. Farrell Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Redline explains, “Sleep-deprived people have higher blood levels of stress hormones and substances that indicate inflammation, a key player in cardiovascular disease. Even a single night of insufficient sleep can perturb your system[.”

Don’t sit for too long.

When you sit, you use less energy than you do when you stand or move. Research has linked sitting for long periods of time with a number of health concerns. They include obesity and a cluster of conditions—increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels—that make up metabolic syndrome. Too much sitting overall and prolonged periods of sitting also seem to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

To reduce time spent sitting, try these ideas:

  • Take a break from sitting every 30 minutes.
  • Stand while talking on the phone or watching television.
  • If you work at a desk, try a standing desk—or improvise with a high table or counter.
  • Walk with your colleagues for meetings rather than sitting in a conference room.
  • Position your work surface above a treadmill—with a computer screen and keyboard on a stand or a specialized treadmill-ready vertical desk—so that you can be in motion throughout the day.

Avoid secondhand smoke.

Studies show that the risk of developing heart disease is about 25 to 30 percent higher for people who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work.

According to the American Heart Association, exposure to tobacco smoke contributes to about 34,000 premature heart disease deaths and 7,300 lung cancer deaths each year.

Nonsmokers who have high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol have an even greater risk of developing heart disease when they’re exposed to secondhand smoke. That’s because chemicals emitted from cigarette smoke promote the development of plaque buildup in the arteries.

Take a walk.

The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity on five days each week (150 minutes per week) for overall cardiovascular health.

Any movement counts, even if you only have five minutes. Five minutes in the morning, five minutes at lunch, and five minutes in the evening can slowly add up over the course of your week.

Enjoy a variety of heart-healthy, nutritious foods.

Read about heart-healthy foods for top recommendations and why they are beneficial.

Stay well hydrated.

Proper hydration is not only good for your brain, your mood, and your body weight—it’s also essential for your heart.

A hydrated heart can pump blood more easily, allowing the muscles in your body to work even better.

Hydration 101: What you need to know

Try adding a hint of lemon, lime, or cucumber to your water. This can provide the refreshing flavor you need to keep picking up that water bottle—and help you avoid  the added sugar in commercial products.

Have a handful of nuts or seeds.

All nuts and seeds are nutritional powerhouses and contribute to heart health thanks to their fiber, healthy fats, and other phytonutrients.

Especially healthy choices include walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and almonds.

Consuming nuts and seeds regularly can lower your LDL while raising your HDL—double whammy!

Find a way to reduce your stress.

Just as physical health is important for heart health, so is your mental health.

Current research is exploring whether stress is directly linked to heart disease. But we already know stress can contribute to high blood pressure, overeating, and other behaviors that can hurt your heart over time.

Try deep breathing, meditation, exercise, or guided imagery. There are so many different options to try.

The best way to manage stress is find what works best for YOU.

Wash your hands often.

Scrubbing up with soap and water often during the day is a great way to protect your heart and health. The flu, pneumonia, and other infections can be very hard on the heart.

Count your blessings and practice =gratitude.

Taking a moment each day to acknowledge the blessings in your life is one way to start tapping into other positive emotions. These have been linked with better health, longer life, and greater well-being. On the other hand, chronic anger, worry, and hostility all contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease.

Ditch the cigarettes; real and electronic.

Smoking increases your blood pressure and heart rate, as well as putting you at a 2–4 times higher risk of having heart disease. Just 24 hours after stopping the use of tobacco, your blood pressure, heart rate, and risk of heart disease begin to drop. Talk to your doctor today about the different methods for quitting.

Smokers sometimes turn to e-cigarettes to try to quit smoking. But according to new research from Boston University School of Medicine, they may be trading one health harm for another.

The study looked at the effects of nine flavorings common in e-cigarettes and other tobacco products on a type of cell that lines the walls of blood vessels, including the ones in the heart.

When five of the flavorings—menthol, acetylpyridine (a burnt flavor), vanilla, cinnamon, and clove—were added to these cells in the lab, they blocked the cells’ ability to produce a heart-healthy gas called nitric oxide. Nitric oxide reduces inflammation, prevents dangerous blood clots from forming, and helps blood vessels open more to improve blood flow. Drops in this gas may damage blood vessels and lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Get your blood pressure checked.

High blood pressure is known as the silent killer because it often has no warning signs or symptoms. The only way to know your blood pressure is to have it checked on a regular basis. Healthy blood pressure is below 120/80 mmHg. The sooner you are aware of any increases, the better chances you have of avoiding serious health problems.

Get your cholesterol checked.

Total cholesterol is measured by LDL, HDL, and other lipoproteins found in the blood. Total cholesterol is typically the number your doctor will look at to determine if you have high cholesterol; however, all components are important.

Complications of high cholesterol include heart attack, peripheral artery disease, hardening of the arteries, and even stroke. Unfortunately, high cholesterol has no symptoms, therefore regular screening is the only way to monitor it.

Below is a chart with recommended cholesterol levels for the average adult. Please note that it’s important to discuss with your doctor as he or she may have different recommendations based on your health.

Cut back on salt (sodium).

Your body needs some sodium to function properly because it:

  • Helps maintain the right balance of fluids in your body.
  • Helps transmit nerve impulses.
  • Affects the contraction and relaxation of muscles.

Your kidneys naturally balance the amount of sodium stored in your body. When your body sodium is low, your kidneys essentially hold on to the sodium. When body sodium is high, your kidneys get rid of excess sodium via urine.

But if your kidneys can’t eliminate enough sodium, it starts to build up in your blood. Because sodium attracts and holds water, your blood volume increases, which makes your heart work harder and increases pressure in your arteries. Diseases such as congestive heart failure, cirrhosis, and chronic kidney disease can make it hard for your kidneys to keep sodium levels balanced.

  • Tips for cutting back on sodium
    • Eat more fresh foods. Most fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally low in sodium.
    • Opt for low-sodium products. If you do buy processed foods, choose the ones labeled “low sodium.”
    • Remove salt from recipes whenever possible. You can leave out the salt in many recipes you cook, including casseroles, soups, stews, and other main dishes.
    • Limit use of salt-laden condiments. Soy sauce, salad dressings, sauces, dips, ketchup, mustard and relish all contain a lot of sodium.
    • Use herbs, spices, and other flavorings to season foods instead.
    • Use salt substitutes wisely. Some salt substitutes or light salts contain a mixture of table salt and other compounds.

Limit alcohol.

While moderate amounts of some alcohol can offer some heart benefits, too much can have damaging effects. For instance, the more alcohol you drink at one time, the higher your heart rate gets, according to research from the European Society of Cardiology. A sudden spike in heart rate could be dangerous to people with heart conditions, as it could trigger arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats).

A study in the April 14, 2018, issue of The Lancet looked at the drinking habits of almost 600,000 people without heart disease, and found that people who had 10 or more drinks per week died one to two years earlier compared with those who drank five drinks or fewer per week. Having 18 drinks or more per week cut life expectancy by four to five years.

Learn what a healthy body weight should be for your height.

Body mass index, or BMI, is a way to help you figure out if you are at a healthy weight for your height. BMI is a number based on your weight and height. In general, the higher the number, the more body fat a person has. BMI is often used as a screening tool to decide if your weight might be putting you at risk for health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

BMI is used to broadly define different weight groups in adults 20 years old and older. The same groups apply to men and women.

  • Underweight: BMI is less than 18.5
  • Normal weight: BMI is 18.5 to 24.9
  • Overweight: BMI is 25 to 29.9
  • Obese: BMI is 30 or more

Calculate what your Body Mass Index should be and what weight is recommended for overall health.

Have your doctor test your blood sugar.

Find out if you have diabetes or prediabetes. Millions of people don’t know that they have this condition. That’s risky because over time, high blood sugar damages arteries and makes heart disease more likely.

Your doctor should test your blood sugar if you are 45 or older, if you are pregnant, or if you’re overweight and have other risk factors for diabetes.

Try some resistance exercise.

Resistance training actually affects body composition. For people who are carrying a lot of body fat (including a big belly, which is a risk factor for heart disease), it can help reduce fat and create leaner muscle mass. Research shows that a combination of aerobic exercise and resistance work may help raise HDL cholesterol and lower LDL cholesterol.

How much: At least two nonconsecutive days per week of resistance training is a good rule of thumb, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

Examples: Working out with free weights (such as hand weights, dumbbells, or barbells); using weight machines with resistance bands; or doing body-resistance exercises such as push-ups, squats, and chin-ups.

Do more of what you love.

Make it a point to spend time with people you enjoy. Talk, laugh, and confide in each other. It’s good for your emotional health and your heart.

Clean up your diet.

Just like your whole body, your heart works best when it runs on clean fuel. That means lots of whole, plant-based foods (like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds) and fewer refined or processed foods (like white bread, pasta, crackers, and cookies).

Think beyond the scale.

Ask your doctor if your weight is OK. If you have some pounds to lose, you’ll probably want to change your eating habits and be more active. But there’s more to it than that.

For many people, “emotional eating” is where they find comfort and stress relief, and how they celebrate. Changing those patterns can be hard. It helps to talk with a counselor or health coach to find other ways to meet emotional needs. 

Laugh out loud (literally)!

Studies show that laughter helps with managing stress, and relieves stress that damages the tissue that forms the lining of blood vessels. Therefore, laughing helps promote the healthy function of blood vessels.

Time your medication (If you take medication).

Taking your cholesterol medication at night may help it be more effective. The enzymes in your liver that make cholesterol are most active at night, so taking your medication before bed may give you the highest blood levels at the most important time.

Talk with your doctor to ensure your medication is as effective as it can be.


Flexibility workouts such as stretching don’t directly contribute to heart health. What they do is benefit musculoskeletal health, which helps you to stay flexible and free from joint pain, cramping, and other muscular issues. Flexibility is a critical part of being able to maintain aerobic exercise and resistance training.

If you have a good musculoskeletal foundation, that enables you to do the exercises that help your heart. As a bonus, flexibility and balance exercises help maintain stability and prevent falls, which can cause injuries that limit other kinds of exercise.

How much: Every day and before and after other exercise.

Examples: Your doctor can recommend basic stretches you can do at home, or you can find DVDs or YouTube videos to follow (though check with your doctor if you’re concerned about the intensity of the exercise). Tai chi and yoga also improve these skills, and classes are available in many communities. 

Learn the signs and symptoms.

You know a character on television is having a heart attack if he clutches his chest in pain. In reality, the signs can be subtler. Nausea and back or jaw pain are common symptoms of heart attack in women, and men are just as likely to feel pain in the arms, jaw, or back as in the chest. Getting treatment as soon as possible is critical with heart attacks; being able to recognize signs of trouble could save your life.

Celebrate every step.

Making changes like these takes time and effort. Think progress, not perfection. And reward yourself for every positive step you take. Ask your friends and family to support you and join in, too. Your heart’s future will be better for it!

Avoid using food as a reward as best you can. Rewards may look different depending on your budget. Some examples: taking a relaxing bubble bath, rent or go out to see a movie, buy a new workout shirt or shoes or even a massage (if your budget allows).

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