This time of year, hearts are everywhere, but not just for Valentine’s Day—February is also American Heart Month. Declared by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, this month encourages Americans to make their heart health a priority and educate people on developing heart-healthy habits.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. While there are plenty of contributing factors you can’t control—age, sex, and family history—there are plenty of steps you can take to improve your heart health and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Quit Smoking (Or Don’t Start)
A third of heart disease deaths can be traced back to smoking cigarettes. The carbon monoxide inhaled when you smoke, among other things, increases the cholesterol buildup in the arteries. This can harden the vessels, restricting or blocking blood flow and leading to potential heart problems. Not only will quitting improve your heart health, but there are a multitude of other benefits to ditching the smokes.
In addition, do your best to avoid secondhand smoke. Of the 480,000 deaths caused by smoking cigarettes, 41,000 are caused by secondhand smoke. The harmful effects of cigarettes can damage your heart health, even if you’re not the one doing the smoking.
Your heart is a muscle, and regular exercise strengthens it, allowing it to perform better under stress. A stronger heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood throughout your body; it beats slower, resulting in lower blood pressure. Exercise also increases HDL cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol, which improves your heart health by flushing the body of LDL cholesterol—the “bad” cholesterol, too much of which can cause a heart attack.
Exercise is especially important if you spend a lot of time sitting—working an office job, for example. Studies suggest leading a sedentary life can actually take years off your lifespan, as well as increase your risk of heart disease. For adults, the American Heart Association recommends, per week, 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes or vigorous aerobic activity to counteract the effects of sitting.
Getting proper rest is an often-overlooked aspect of heart health; for reference 7-9 hours is considered “enough” sleep for an adult. While sleeping, your blood pressure drops and your heart rate slows, allowing it to recover from the stress of the day. Sleeping poorly may be fine for a day or two, but consistent, long-term sleep deprivation doesn’t give your heart enough time to rest and can contribute to problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
For more information about how to get involved with American Heart Month, visit the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. For more tips on how to stay healthy, visit the Specialized Health and Safety blog.