How to Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease Step by Step 

February is American Heart Month, and now is a great time to assess your heart health and take steps to improve it. According to the American Heart Association, more than 2,150 Americans die from cardiovascular disease each day—and many of the factors that contribute to heart disease are preventable with lifestyle changes.

However, it can feel overwhelming to try to overhaul your life and make sure that everything you eat, drink and do helps protect your heart. Where do you start? 

The good news is that there are smaller, gradual steps you can take to strengthen your heart and begin lowering your risk of serious cardiovascular complications. Whether you have an insatiable sweet tooth, trouble quitting smoking or an aversion to physical exercise (or all of the above!), you can develop a plan for improving your heart health that works for you.  

“The overall strategy for any habit change is baby steps,” says Dr. Kamran Aslam, an electrophysiologist at Swedish Hospital. “If you have a long-term goal, break it up into smaller goals. It’s like training for a marathon; you don’t focus on the end, you focus on the first mile.” So while it’s okay to start slow, it’s important to start. Check out the following tips to help you start developing a sustainable plan for heart-healthy living today.

Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease Through Diet

    Short Term Goal

    Try this easy move: Open up your spice cabinet and push the salt to the very back. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease; in fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 70% of people who have a first heart attack also have high blood pressure. Cutting back on salt can lower your blood pressure and help you protect your heart. Make a conscious effort to swap salt for healthy herbs and spices that can reduce your risk of heart disease—without forcing you to sacrifice flavor.

    Longer Term Goal

    This month: The next time you go grocery shopping, head to the store with a heart-healthy shopping plan. Buy healthy oils, like olive oil or sesame oil, and leave butter and trans fats behind. Look for canned soups and foods that are labeled “low sodium” or “no sodium added.” Additionally, the dietary fiber in whole grains has been linked to better heart health, so swap regular pasta for whole grain pasta since it’s easy to incorporate the healthier option into your classic pasta dishes.

    Long-Term Goal

    Dr. Aslam stresses the importance of limiting the amount of processed foods you eat (such as packaged cookies, chips and other snacks). Instead, reach for complex carbohydrates, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. “Everything you eat breaks down into sugar, protein and fat,” says Dr. Aslam. “The problem with refined foods is that someone has already done that work for you. With complex foods, like fruits, the body is working to expend energy while you eat.” While it may be difficult to eliminate processed foods from your diet overnight, a gradual plan for reducing the amount of processed foods you eat can have a serious impact on your heart health.

Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease Through Fitness

    Short-Term Goal

    Today: If you have trouble sticking with regular exercise, make a few lifestyle changes that can help you sneak in a workout. Take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible, and park your car at the furthest end of the parking lot to increase the number of steps you take during the day. Want to help your heart and get brownie points from your spouse? Offer to do household chores like cleaning out the basement, scrubbing the bathroom or doing yard work—all of these activities can provide a quick and effective cardiovascular workout. 

    Longer Term Goal

    This month: Assess your current weight levels by calculating your body mass index (BMI). Your BMI is determined by your weight and height, and it can help provide a general gauge of how your weight may contribute to several health conditions, including heart disease. After measuring your height and weight, click here to calculate your BMI.  Then, take this figure to your primary care physician to determine what steps you should take to maintain or achieve a healthy weight and help you protect your heart. 

    Long-Term Goal

    Long-term goals: If your exercise regimen feels like a chore, you may be less likely to keep it up. Whether you enjoy taking dance classes, running by the lake, playing basketball or skiing, make a commitment to finding regular physical activity that makes you forget that you’re working out. How can you tell if your favorite hobby is giving your heart a workout? “You should engage in exercise that gets your heart rate up without going over your maximum heart rate, which is 220 minus your age,” says Dr. Aslam. You can measure your heart rate by taking your pulse on the inside of your wrist below your thumb (using the tips of your first two fingers), counting your pulse for 10 seconds and multiplying that number by 6. 

Additional Tips for Lowering Your Risk for Heart Disease

    Stress Management

    Stress has been linked with an increased risk for heart problems; for example, a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that people who had high perceived levels of daily stress were more likely to develop heart disease than people who did not. Tackle stress today by pacing yourself throughout the day, getting organized and asking for help when you need it (both at home and at work). 

    Learn the Signs and Symptoms of Heart Abnormalities

    Some examples include heart palpitations (abnormal racing or slowing of the heart) while you’re at rest, feeling like you are going to pass out, shortness of breath, chest pain or dizziness. If you have not had a recent conversation with your primary care physician about your heart health, make an appointment this month to get a checkup. Be sure to tell your doctor if you have experienced any of the common signs of heart rhythm abnormalities. 

    Quit Smoking

    Smoking is a leading contributor to heart disease. Talk to your primary care physician about resources to help you quit smoking; whether it takes a few days, a few months or a few years, quitting smoking can be critical for your heart health. Additionally, your long-term heart disease prevention goals should include the development of a close relationship with your doctor so that you can work together to monitor changes to your heart—and treat problems early, rather than later.

By Nicole Joseph

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