Cheerful red and pink hearts cover advertisements, and heart-shaped candies can be found in every supermarket. For most, these hearts 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 American Heart Month and serves 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 – and we can show ourselves love by embracing a heart-healthy lifestyle.

What is heart disease?

Also known as cardiovascular disease (CVD), heart disease encompasses any condition that affects the heart and its surrounding blood vessels, including heart attack, atrial fibrillation (Afib), different forms of cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia, and more. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US.

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. Plaque buildup is often caused by high cholesterol. Plaque can break off of the artery wall and a blood clot can form, possibly causing a heart attack or stroke.

However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), 80% of heart attacks and strokes are preventable.

How can you prevent heart disease?

The key to preventing heart disease is to be conscious about day-to-day choices, especially when it comes to what you eat and how often you move your body. Healthy eating and exercising regularly can make a big difference in your life, but it’s easier said than done. Change can be difficult. Instead of jumping into a drastically different lifestyle, try making several small adjustments over time.

  • Move more. Get up to talk to a colleague instead of sending an email, or use a headset to take phone calls and pace around your office or home. Even 10-minute increments of exercise can make a difference!
  • Get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, five days a week. With “aerobic exercise” your body uses more oxygen than it does during rest and uses large muscle groups. Brisk walks are a good way to introduce this type of exercise into your routine. Swimming can also be beneficial because it’s a low-impact exercise that puts minimal stress on joints. Hiking and biking are two other low-impact forms of exercise that are great for people who don’t want to be stuck in a gym.
  • Embrace healthier eating. This means consuming fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and lean meat. You should try to avoid sodium (salt), foods with a lot of sugar, red meat, and overly processed foods. Pay attention to nutrition labels and serving sizes.
  • Control your stress levels as much as you can. The best way to control stress may differ 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.
  • Recognize that sleep isn’t a luxury. Getting enough sleep is essential to heart health. Sleep deprivation can increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and atherosclerosis.
  • Avoid unhealthy habits, such as drinking heavily and smoking. Both smoking and heavy drinking can lead to heart disease, as can exposure to secondhand smoke. If you’re a smoker, it’s never too late to quit. According to the CDC, “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. 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. Although healthy living can help 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. Risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, women over the age of 55 who have gone through menopause are also at a higher risk for heart disease.

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.

*Always talk to your healthcare provider before starting an exercise program or significantly changing your diet.*