We’re all about the love in February—self-love, romantic love, love for friends and family. And with it being American Heart Month, we’re also turning our attention to the organ that symbolizes all that love: the heart.
At the heart of the cardiovascular system (pun intended, #sorrynotsorry) is the beating heart, which pumps blood throughout the body and works to control your heart rate and blood pressure.
Its function is essential to our survival—truly, the amount of work the heart does for us is astounding. In one lifetime, the heart beats nearly 3 billion times, with each heartbeat generating enough force to circulate blood through tens of thousands of miles of vessels. The blood that passes through an average adult heart in one week could fill a small swimming pool.
Now that’s love.
So as you’re showering chocolate candies and Valentine’s cards on loved ones this month, give your heart some gifts as well by following these heart health tips—this month and every month after.
1. Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet
A healthy heart starts with a healthy diet. Choose foods that are low in saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium, and get as many fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as you can.
Even small changes to your diet can benefit your heart. A diet overhaul may be too daunting to contemplate at first, and it likely won’t be sustainable long term, anyway. Small changes, however, have the tendency to become lifelong habits. Try some of these to get you started:
Focus on adding, not subtracting. Rather than quitting all treats cold turkey, start with adding more of the healthy foods you know you’re not getting enough of.
Eat lean meats like fish and chicken instead of red meat as much as possible.
Cook with olive oil instead of butter.
2. Get plenty of exercise
Consistent exercise helps keep your heart strong. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. This includes activities like walking, swimming, cycling, and lifting weights.
You’ll need more than a good 30-minute session in the gym each day, though. It’s important to move throughout the day, too. No matter how good your workout was this morning, you’ll negate a lot of the benefits if you follow that up with 12 hours of sitting in front of a screen.
Luckily, “moving more” encompasses a lot of activities you’re probably already doing:
Playing with kids
But in other situations, like when you’re sitting at a desk or watching TV for long stretches of time, you’ll need to be more creative about staying active. Make sure you get up to walk around at least once an hour during the day, and if you plan to spend your evening watching a favorite show or sports team, do some push-ups or crunches between episodes or during commercial breaks.
3. Sleep 7–9 hours a night
Stop thinking of sleep as a luxury and make restful, quality sleep a priority. Sleep benefits every part of the body. For the heart specifically, sleep is important because it lowers blood pressure. Without consistent, restful sleep, blood pressure stays elevated for longer periods of time, something we want to avoid to support heart health.
4. Don’t smoke
Smoking can damage your blood vessels and increase your risk of heart conditions. If you smoke, quitting is one of the best things you can do for your heart health, even if you’ve smoked for years. Your heart rate drops just 20 minutes after you stop smoking, and within 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level in your blood drops back to normal.
So the benefits of quitting smoking start right away. Long-term benefits are even better. Within about four years of quitting, your risk of stroke drops to that of lifetime non-smokers. When it comes to the heart, it’s never too late to break a bad habit.
5. Drink in moderation
In general, excessive alcohol isn’t good for anyone, for a variety of reasons. Too much alcohol can increase heart rate, cause heart rate irregularities, and raise blood pressure. This is why it’s best to drink in moderation, no more than 1–2 drinks per day.
6. Keep stress in check
It’s normal to experience stress occasionally, but if you feel stressed all the time, it can negatively affect your heart health. Start with making sure you’re exercising regularly and getting enough sleep. Then try to take some time each day to decompress and do activities that help you relax, such as:
Laughing with friends and family
Keeping a gratitude journal
Something as simple as talking to a friend about a problem can ease your burdens too. It may seem that stress is triggered from every angle, but we have at least as many tools at our disposal to combat it, too.
7. Have regular checkups
It’s always a good idea to know where you stand with heart health. See your doctor regularly—at least once a year—to monitor blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and blood sugar levels. Familiarize yourself with your family history surrounding heart health, too.
Knowledge is power; the more you know about your health and risk factors, the better prepared you will be to support heart health.
8. Maintain a healthy weight
Finally, do what you can to maintain a healthy weight, as obesity is another factor that affects heart health. Your heart has to work harder when carrying that extra weight. Many of the tips outlined above support healthy weight management.
Follow your heart
Remember, it’s not “vein” to love your heart. Follow these heart health tips to support your cardiovascular health in joy and sorrow, in sickness and in health—you know the drill.