Cheerful red and pink hearts cover advertisements, and heart-shaped candies can be found in every supermarket. For most, they are a celebration of Valentine’s Day, a day to celebrate love in all of its forms. Here at NATF, they stand for a different type of love, a love of health.

February is Heart Health Month. It stands as a reminder of how important it is to live a healthy life. During a month when we can be so focused on our personal relationships with others, it’s important to consider our relationships with ourselves. We can show ourselves love by embracing a heart healthy lifestyle.

What is heart disease?

The term “heart disease” encompasses a variety of different health problems. Also known as cardiovascular disease, it encompasses any disease that affects the heart and the blood vessels that surround it. These diseases include heart attack, atrial fibrillation, different forms of cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia, and more. It is the leading cause of death in the USA.

Many of the issues that come with heart disease are related to atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis occurs when plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries, causing them to narrow. This is often caused by high cholesterol. Plaque can break off of the artery wall and a blood clot can form, possibly causing heart attack or stroke

How can you prevent it?

The key to preventing heart disease is to be conscious of the choices you make in life, especially when it comes to what you eat and how you exercise. Eating healthy and exercising regularly can make a big difference in your life, significantly lowering your risk of heart disease and making you healthier overall. But, it’s also easier said than done. Many of us are very set in our ways and change can be difficult. Instead of jumping into a drastically different lifestyle, try making several small changes over time. You’ll have a better chance of sticking with your new healthy habits.

Here are five lifestyle changes you can make to lower your risk of heart disease:

  • Get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, five days a week. Brisk walks are a good way to introduce this type of exercise into your life. Swimming can also be beneficial, because it’s low-impact exercise and puts less stress on the joints. Hiking and biking are two more low-impact forms of exercise that are great for people who don’t want to be stuck in the gym.
  • Eat healthy. This means embracing fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and lean meat. You should try to avoid sodium (salt), fats, foods with a lot of sugar, red meat, and overly processed foods. Pay attention to the nutrition labels on the foods you buy.
  • Control your stress levels. While a bit of stress is good, too much of it can be unhealthy. The best way to control stress can vary from person to person. For some, meditation or yoga are very helpful. For others, intense exercise is the answer. Spending time with people you care about and sharing your worries can be very beneficial, as can spending time with pets.
  • Avoid bad habits, such as drinking heavily and smoking. Drinking increases your risk of high blood pressure and obesity. Both of these conditions can lead to heart disease. According to the Center for Disease Control, smoking also increases your risk for heart disease, as does secondhand smoke. If you are already a smoker, it’s never too late to quit. “Within a year, the risk of heart attack drops dramatically, and even people who have already had a heart attack can cut their risk of having another if they quit smoking,” writes the CDC in a fact sheet on how smoking affects the heart and circulatory system. “Within five years of quitting, smokers lower their risk of stroke to about that of a person who has never smoked.”
  • Know your risk factors. While healthy living can help you prevent heart disease, many healthy people can still be genetically predisposed to it. Talk to your extended family, especially your parents and grandparents, about their health histories. Other risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, women who are over the age of 55 and who have gone through menopause are also at a higher risk for heart disease.

While the idea of heart disease can be scary, you can take control of your risk. Even if you have a family history of heart disease, studies show that you can lower your risk by adopting a heart healthy lifestyle and working closely with your healthcare team to monitor your risk factors.

This February, take the first steps towards a healthier heart. Do it for yourself. Do it for your loved ones