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February is a month all about hearts, full of heart-shaped candies, cards, and boxes for Valentine’s Day. But February is also American Heart Month, and is devoted to raising public awareness about strategies for preventing the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States: heart disease. 

Habit #1: Maintain or Achieve a Healthy Weight

Our country’s obesity rate increases each year, and so does the number of deaths caused by heart disease. Weight and heart health are linked in many ways; for example, increased body weight causes high blood pressure, which increases the risk for heart attack, stroke, and sudden cardiac death. High cholesterol is also linked to increased body weight, and plays a key role in the development of heart disease. The risk of developing diabetes (another contributing factor to heart disease) also increases with weight. The most common cause for heart disease is atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of fatty plaques in the arteries. Atherosclerosis is mostly preventable, as it is caused in part by unhealthy diet and lack of exercise, both of which can lead to being overweight or obese. Being underweight also puts strain on the heart, since undereating often leads to malnourishment. For these reasons, maintaining a weight which is neither too high or too low is ideal for heart health.

Achieving a healthy weight can be a difficult undertaking. Because everyone’s body is different, there is no “one size fits all” approach to weight loss (or weight gain, for the smaller percentage of the population who are underweight). Figuring out the best formula for you to achieve a healthy weight takes time and some self-experimentation, but there are a few methods which have proven effective for large amounts of people. 

Here are some nutritional tips that are widely accepted as helpful for weight loss and heart health:

  • Eat more vegetables
  • Reduce sodium intake
  • Consume less processed foods
  • Choose whole grains over refined grains
  • Decrease or eliminate added sugar from your diet

Along with decreasing the risk of heart disease, maintaining a healthy weight comes with many health benefits, including but not limited to decreased risk of diabetes, lowered blood pressure, improved cholesterol levels, and improved blood sugar levels. Those who maintain healthy weight also tend to experience improved mobility and decreased joint pain, which can help make our next heart healthy habit easier to do. If you need or want to lose weight and you aren’t sure where to start, talk to a healthcare provider. He or she can help you figure out a plan to get you on the path toward a healthier weight!

Habit #2: Be Active

Regular physical activity can help you to achieve a healthy weight, but the heart health benefits it offers don’t stop there. 

Here are some of the ways exercise benefits our hearts:

  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Improves blood flow
  • Lowers cholesterol
  • Reduces risk of heart arrhythmia
  • Decreases risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes

Despite the benefits of exercise, many people are intimidated to begin, whether it’s because they don’t know where to start or because they think exercise is always unpleasant. Though our bodies usually become uncomfortable when we start moving more than we usually do, there are small steps you can take to ease into getting more activity without pushing yourself too hard. Adding short walks to your day is one step you can take to exercising more. Each day, walking a little farther or longer will help your body build some endurance for the activity you’re doing. Eventually, you’ll be able to add in running! The main thing to keep in mind is that positive lifestyle changes don’t have to happen all at once, or even quickly. Slowly but deliberately adding habits to your daily routine increases the likelihood of sticking with those habits.

Habit #3: Quit Smoking

In 2020, we know that smoking cigarettes is bad for health; not only does it negatively affect the lungs, it has damaging effects on the heart as well. It causes increased heart rate, tightens major arteries, and can cause an irregular heart rhythm, which all make your heart work harder. Smoking increases blood pressure, increasing the chances of suffering a stroke. We all know about nicotine, the addictive agent in cigarettes, but other chemicals and compounds like tar and carbon monoxide can lead to atherosclerosis, which can damage blood vessel walls. Cigarettes can also raise cholesterol and fibrinogen (a clotting complex), increasing the risk of a blood clot.

Despite what we know about the dangers of smoking, plenty of people still do it. It’s extremely hard to quit smoking (thanks, nicotine), but it is possible and it is worth it. 

Here are some ways your heart benefits when you quit smoking:

  • Just 20 minutes after your last cigarette, blood pressure and pulse begin to lower to normal levels. 
  • Within 8 hours, carbon monoxide levels in your body will become more normal, resulting in increased oxygen levels in the blood. 
  • In 24 hours, your risk for heart attack is significantly lessened, as veins and arteries become less constricted as oxygen levels increase. 
  • Just two weeks after quitting, circulation improves and everyday actions become easier. 

The benefits continue long after two weeks, and eventually your health risks lower to that of a nonsmoker. If you’re a smoker, it’s not too late to quit! 

There are many paths you can take that will lead to better heart health, but implementing any of these three habits is a great place to start! As always, if you have questions or concerns about your overall health or heart health, the providers here at Mercer Medicine will answer your questions and make sure you get the care you need to feel great and live healthy.