February is recognized as American Heart Month, a health observance that encourages Americans to understand the importance of heart health and adopt healthier behaviors that can decrease the risk of serious health outcomes, such as a heart attack or stroke.
Unfortunately, heart disease and other conditions that can affect the heart, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, are far too common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
By adopting healthier lifestyle habits, individuals can learn to incorporate small, but powerful, changes into their day-to-day routines that can help decrease their risk of heart disease, improve overall health and increase longevity. The CDC states that living a healthier lifestyle can help you lower your blood pressure and cholesterol level and ultimately help lower your risk for heart disease.
Living a longer, healthier life starts with taking care of your heart. Here are five lifestyle habits that can be implemented today that can improve not only heart, but whole-body health:
- Keep a gratitude journal. By taking a few minutes out of every day to acknowledge what or who you are grateful for, you can tap into positive emotions which are linked to greater wellbeing. Try writing the things you are grateful for in a journal or even expressing them out loud to a friend or family member.
- Find support for smoking cessation. Some old habits are especially hard to break, especially smoking, which is a major cause of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attack and stroke. In fact, according to the CDC, one in every four deaths from cardiovascular diseases is caused by smoking. If you are ready to quit, asking a friend or a family member for support may help. The person supporting you can help you stay positive, celebrate your successes and aid in changing your daily routine, such as going on an evening walk instead of an after-work cigarette.
- Move more. Any physical activity is better than none, so it can be helpful to choose an activity that you enjoy, such as biking, yoga, walking, swimming or tennis. Even small changes to your routine, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking further away from the door when you visit the grocery store can make a difference. Stay motivated to be active by doing the activity with a friend or your pet. According to the American Heart Association, regular moderate to vigorous physical activity reduces heart disease by 30 to 40% and stroke by 25%.
- Spice it up. Sodium is a mineral that we all need, but too much sodium intake from the foods we eat has been associated with increased blood pressure — and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration dietary guidelines recommend limiting sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams per day (about 1 teaspoon), and the American Heart Association recommends moving toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults. You can substitute salt with flavorful spices and herbs that liven up your food, such as basil, rosemary, mint, ginger, cayenne, cilantro and dill.
- Floss daily. Practicing good dental hygiene, especially flossing your teeth daily, can contribute to your overall health and heart health specifically, according to the AHA. Many studies have shown that bacteria in the mouth involved in the development of gum disease can move into the blood stream and cause an elevation in C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation in the blood vessels. This elevation may increase your risk for heart disease and stroke. So, brush and floss daily, not only for fresh breath, but for your heart health, too.
It’s true that some habits are hard to break but remember that small steps can lead to big victories. Take one habit at a time and with a series of small changes you are on your way to a healthier lifestyle and healthier heart.
Optum Disclaimer: Talk with your doctor before significantly increasing your activity level. Ask about the amounts and types of activities that may be best for you.
Kendra Robison is medical director with Optum in Colorado Springs.