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Strengthening your heart doesn’t require big lifestyle changes. These little adjustments can really add up.
You know heart health is important. But how confident are you about the different ways to protect it?
One in five Americans, for example, don’t see a connection between the foods they eat and their heart health, according to a 2019 national Cleveland Clinic survey.
Only 22% said they’ve discussed their heart health with their doctor. And 65% of baby boomers said they don’t want to hear that they might need to lose a few pounds in the name of a healthier heart and feeling better overall.
Here’s the deal though: Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Yet, the AHA estimates that 80% of heart disease, including heart attack and stroke, are preventable.
To help reduce those deaths, the AHA created what it calls Life’s Simple 7 — relatively easy lifestyle changes that will help keep your heart healthy.
These seven steps are completely doable. In fact, you can start right now. Read through the seven key areas below and pick one or two that seem manageable today. Tomorrow, dive in where you left off.
Heart Helper #1: Eat One Meatless Meal
The AHA notes that eating a meatless meal from time to time can help lower your cholesterol. Once or twice a week is a good place to start.
Plant-based proteins like tofu, quinoa, beans and lentils make great bases for many dishes. Then focus on adding in lots of vegetables to help make the meal more filling. And, of course, there’s always a veggie burger or even one of the new meatless “meats” that you’ll find right next to the ground beef and turkey at your grocery store.
Other building blocks of a heart-healthy eating plan include healthy fats, like avocados and nuts, as well as whole grains and fruit, notes the Mayo Clinic. Limiting foods high in saturated fats, like butter, beef, bacon and cheese, as well as heavily processed foods, will help get your heart health in better shape.
Heart Helper #2: Find a Physical Activity You Enjoy
It’s important to get your blood pumping and raise your heart rate every day. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) says that physical activity will help strengthen your heart muscle, lower your risk of coronary heart disease and help your blood vessels carry oxygen throughout your body.
Get moving for 30 minutes today by walking around the block, swimming a few laps, dancing or enjoying a low-intensity bike ride.
Can’t squeeze in a solid 30 minutes today? The NHLBI notes that simply breaking up how long you sit with periodic time-outs to stretch and move around will go a long way toward helping your heart and overall health.
Heart Helper #3: Step on a Scale
Going back to the Cleveland Clinic survey, 65% of Americans are worried about getting heart disease due to extra pounds.
They’re right to be concerned: The AHA says that being overweight is a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. Yet less than half (43%) of those surveyed have tried to make changes to lose weight.
We get it. It’s not easy to reach and maintain a healthy weight. That’s where your doctor can help. They can determine what a healthy weight for you is, and help you understand your BMI, or body mass index.
They can also connect you with weight-loss resources in your area or recommend a registered dietician for you to work with. Together, you can develop a plan to help maintain or work toward those ideal numbers.
Heart Helper #4: Check Your Blood Pressure
If you have your own blood pressure monitor stashed away in a closet, pull it out and take a reading. Don’t own one? Stop by your local pharmacy and use the blood pressure machine there to get a baseline reading.
Why bother to get a reading outside of the doctor’s office? Because 85 million Americans have high blood pressure, according to the AHA, and many have no idea. All too often, high blood pressure goes unnoticed until someone has a heart attack or stroke. That’s why it’s called “the silent killer.”
If you get a reading where the top number is between 120 and 129 and the bottom number is less than 80, that signals “elevated” blood pressure. You’re not in the danger zone, but the AHA notes that many people with elevated blood pressure go on to develop high blood pressure unless they take action.
Readings where the top number is anything above 130 and the bottom number is 80 or above signals high blood pressure (aka hypertension). The AHA points out that a single high reading isn’t an immediate cause for alarm. They suggest taking a second or even third reading and checking with your doctor to confirm any high numbers.
Only a doctor can diagnose high blood pressure, but taking your own readings on a regular basis is a great way to take control of your heart health. Be sure to bring up any elevated or high readings with your doctor.
And don’t skip your annual wellness visit. That’s one of the best ways your doctor has of tracking your blood pressure, so they can let you know if there are changes you need to make to keep the number down.
Heart Helper #5: Ask for a Cholesterol Test
High cholesterol is another silent symptom of heart disease, according to the AHA. If you’ve lost track of when you last had yours checked, call your doctor’s office and ask about screenings to check your cholesterol levels.
It is important to know these numbers, because there are usually no symptoms of high cholesterol until it is too late. A high level of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, puts you at an increased risk of heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular disease.
If your levels are elevated, your doctor will talk to you about how to get them back in range. Sometimes you’ll need medication, and sometimes changing your food choices and exercise habits will do the trick.
If you’re overdue for that wellness visit, make an appointment today.
Do your heart health a favor
Want to do even more for your heart health? Discover vital information and helpful resources when you visit the Learning Center on Heart Health from Renew. To learn more, sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for the Health Topic Library in the Quick Links section. Not a member? Learn more here.
Heart Helper #6: Blow Off Steam
Stress that goes unchecked not only chips away at your heart health, notes the AHA, but it also has a significant impact on blood sugar levels.
When you’re tense for days on end, your body thinks it’s under a constant state of attack. It doesn’t know to turn off the flow of stress hormones that can raise blood sugar levels, speed up your heart rate and cause your blood pressure to rise.
If you have type 2 diabetes, your doctor has most likely told you that you have an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. That’s why it’s important to keep blood sugar levels in check by managing stress.
Physical activity is a great way to unwind. Even something as simple as taking a walk after meals can help control your blood sugar, whether or not you are living with diabetes.
After dinner tonight, lace up your sneakers and go on a neighborhood stroll. Or pick another activity that helps you put the day’s worries behind you.
Heart Helper #7: Commit to Kicking the Habit
If you smoke, it’s time to quit, says the AHA. Cigarette smokers have an increased risk of developing a variety of cardiovascular problems. These conditions include clogged arteries, cancers and coronary heart disease, which can lead to a heart attack.
Quitting can be overwhelming, especially if you’ve tried and failed to quit in the past. Reach out to your doctor for smoking cessation resources. Or check out Smokefree.gov for more tools to help you quit.
Remember, every attempt to quit brings you one step closer to success, according to the Food and Drug Administration, so keep trying. Today is the day to make a plan to quit.
Watch this heart health video to discover more ways to better care for your heart.