By Angela Hurston, FiftyForward MSW intern from the University of Tennessee

The heart has come to symbolize love and romance, celebrated every February 14th on Saint Valentine’s Day. The heart also signifies passion and vitality. Long before modern medical science, people knew the beating heart was vital to life. For this reason, the heart symbol is also associated with health and wellbeing.

The significance of the heart to good health is not just symbolic

Cardiovascular health is essential to human longevity and wellness. So it seems appropriate that each February, the month of valentines and heart-shaped candies, should be the month the United States observes American Heart MonthProclaimed by Lyndon B. Johnson, February 1964 was the first American Heart Month. And in 2004, the American Heart Association launched Go Red for Women®, a global initiative to end heart disease and stroke in women.

This February let’s take charge of our cardiovascular health. Here are some tips for making healthy lifestyle choices that lower risk factors and prevent illness.

Eat Well

By choosing to eat healthy meals and snacks, we can improve the health of our hearts and prevent disease.

  • Opt for fresh fruits and green vegetables.
  • Look for foods with high fiber or whole grains such as oatmeal and whole-grain bread.
  • Check nutrition labels to avoid foods containing high in sugar, sodium, cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans-fat.
  • Avoid unhealthy saturated fats. Choose oils and foods containing high levels of healthy fats such as olive or canola oils, almonds, pumpkin seeds, avocados, or tofu.
  • Eat 8 ounces of fish high in omega-3 fatty acids every week. Salmon, tuna, and trout are some delicious options.
  • Dairy foods like milk, cheese, and yogurt can be a good source of protein and calcium but be sure to select the low-fat or fat-free varieties.
  • Limit your alcohol consumption, which can raise your blood pressure. Men should have no more than 2 drinks per day, and women no more than 1 drink per day.

Keep It Moving

Physical activity is vital to healthy hearts. People with sedentary lifestyles have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, and death.

  • Physical activity can lower risk factors for heart disease such as bad LDL cholesterol levels, increase good HDL cholesterol levels, and control high blood pressure.
  • It can also help with losing excess weight and the prevention of Type 2 diabetes.
  • For adults, the Surgeon General recommends 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercises such as brisk walking and bicycling.
  • It is important to first talk with your doctor before you start a new exercise plan to determine the amount and type of physical activity that is safe for you.

Manage Weight

Since excess weight can be a strain on the heart and blood vessels, aiming for a healthy weight is an essential component of cardiovascular health.

  • The Body Mass Index (BMI), an indicator of total body fat, is a measurement used to determine a healthy weight for your height.
  •  A BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 is usually considered optimal. Still, it is best to discuss with your doctor what BMI and weight are healthiest for you.

Quit Smoking

Smoking cigarettes significantly increases your risk of heart disease.

  • If you are having trouble quitting, talk with your doctor for assistance.
  • Consider joining a support group. Check with hospitals, workplaces, and community groups for smoking cessation classes.
  • Try to avoid secondhand smoke.

Stay On Top of Your Medical Care

Your physician and health care team are your partners. Maintaining regular checkups and managing existing medical conditions is crucial to heart health. FiftyForward Supportive Care may be able to offer assistance to those who have little family in the area or who need help with access to resources of services.

  • Have your blood levels of cholesterol tested at least once every 4 to 6 years; More often, if you have a family history or have an existing diagnosis of high cholesterol.
  • Have your blood pressure checked at least once every 2 years if you have never had high blood pressure or other risk factors for heart disease.
  • If you have been diagnosed with hypertension (high blood pressure), discuss with your doctor how often you should check your blood pressure.
  • Besides the doctor’s office, you may be able to check your blood pressure at your pharmacy. Blood pressure monitors for home use are available for purchase.
  • Follow the doctor’s orders. If you need a medicine to treat high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes, Take your medicine as prescribed.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common type of heart disease in the United States. CAD can decrease the blood flow to the heart, creating conditions for a heart attack. Although discussing cardiovascular risks may be frightening, know that with healthy lifestyle choices and regular medical checkups, heart disease can be managed and prevented.

For more information, please visit the links below:

CDC: Heart Disease

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

FEBRUARY 2020: American Heart Month and Go Red for Women