Get Heart-Healthy in February

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. February, host to both Valentine’s Day and American Heart Month, is a great time to learn heart-healthy habits that will help keep us around for those we love.

Eat a Healthy Diet

“When making heart-healthy lifestyle changes, good nutrition should count for 70 percent of your efforts,” says JoEllen Kaufman, Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist and Clinical Lipid Specialist. “The key is moderation and consistency over time—eat bad foods less frequently and less of them.”

Restrict red meat to—at most—twice a week; avoid trans fats by reading nutrition labels, and limit added sugars. When it comes to sugars, Integrative Nutritionist and Holistic Health Coach Pam Gross urges her clients to “learn where sugar hides: in high-carbohydrate foods like bread, pasta, and even oatmeal,” which cause a spike in insulin just like the sweet stuff.

Experts agree that a healthy diet should include more “real” and fewer processed foods. Dr. Annabelle Volgman, Clinical Cardiologist and creator of the Rush Heart Center for Women, advocates a Mediterranean diet with its emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, some good wine (no more than one glass per day for women and two for men) and enjoying sit-down meals with family.

Heart healthy foods:

  • Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, tuna and mackerel. Kaufman reminds us that the preparation is important too, so “choose baked or broiled over fried.”
  • Dry roasted or raw nuts. Almonds, walnuts or pecans are best; buy them dry-roasted or raw.
  • Beans, specifically black and kidney beans, garbanzos, pintos and lentils.
  • Healthy fats found in olive oil, avocados, flax oil, olives and nut butters.

Get Regular Physical Exercise

The good news is that less is more. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. One mistake that people make is exercising too much. Recent studies show that extreme endurance exercise such as marathons and triathlons can do more harm than good, especially to your heart. Gross says, “People try to bully themselves into good health and overdo it with diet and exercise.” Again, moderation matters.

Know your Family History

Find out your family’s history of heart disease so that you can seek early prevention. Volgman says to specifically look for early heart attacks that occurred in male family members below the age of 55 and females under age 65. “If a family history is present, it’s important for even young people to visit a preventive cardiologist.”

Control your Stress

Heart disease is an inflammatory disease. Kaufman notes that chronic stress causes inflammation, which ages our bodies prematurely. Gross recommends taking a hard look at your schedule and cutting unnecessary tasks to allow for more free time. She says, “Rearranging your priorities to tune into what you really want to do leads to a more joyful life.” Meditation is also a powerful stress reducer.

Cultivate a Positive Attitude

New research indicates that, “Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts,” says lead researcher Rosalba Hernandez, Professor of Social Work at the University of Illinois.

Ways to increase positivity: surround yourself with positive people, make note of one positive experience each day, exercise, meditation (again), list three gratitudes daily, engage in random acts of kindness.

Gross likes the app WinStreak for easily recording positive events. Learn more about fostering happiness by watching positive psychology researcher and educator Shawn Achor’s TED Talk on “The Happy Secret to Better Work.”

Stop Smoking

According to the American Heart Association, “Smokers have a higher risk of developing many chronic disorders…which can lead to coronary heart disease and stroke. Controlling or reversing atherosclerosis is an important part of preventing future heart attack or stroke.” Visit their site for resources and articles on planning to quit and dealing with urges.

Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Research shows that poor sleep quality leads to higher blood pressure. The right amount of sleep varies from person to person with the average between six to eight hours. Prepare for better sleep by exercising early in the day, avoiding excess caffeine and evening electronics, and creating a relaxing evening routine like drinking herbal tea.