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Keys to a Healthy Heart

Art Aiello |
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Art Aiello is a writer and editor based in Waukesha, WI. 

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, it’s likely candy hearts are — or have been — on your mind. You might not know, however, that February is also American Heart Month — a time to be mindful of your actual heart and ways in which you can prevent cardiovascular disease.

Heart disease is something of particular interest to me, as it runs in my mother’s family. My mother has had six heart bypasses and had her heart valve replaced. She had her first angioplasty in her late 40’s — my current age. Several of her siblings suffered heart attacks, and her father died of one.

Apart from the impact heart disease has had on my family — I’ve been fortunate to have avoided it thus far — cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to The Heart Foundation. About 720,000 people suffer heart attacks each year. That’s about the population of Charlotte, N.C. at the 2010 census. And it means someone has a heart attack about every 34 seconds. Every minute, someone dies from a heart attack.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a leading cause of heart disease is uncontrolled high blood pressure — also called hypertension. If you have high blood pressure, which unfortunately shows few signs or symptoms, you are four times more likely to suffer a stroke and three times more likely to suffer a heart attack, than someone who has normal blood pressure, according to the CDC.

So what can you do about it? The first order of business is to have your doctor or healthcare professional test you to see if you have high blood pressure. If you do, then follow their instructions. They will likely put you on medication to help control your blood pressure, but if you smoke, they will also probably urge you to stop as soon as possible. You will also likely be asked to reduce your sodium intake, which means reducing salt. Sodium can raise your blood pressure dramatically.

Another way to reduce blood pressure is to exercise regularly. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise makes it easier for your heart to pump blood, which means your blood pressure will drop. That doesn’t mean you have to become a marathon runner, though. Even moderate physical activity can have a positive effect on your blood pressure. The goal is to increase your amount of aerobic activity — that which raises your heart rate and breathing. Walking, doing household chores, swimming — even dancing — all qualify as aerobic activities.

The Mayo Clinic recommends getting in about 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week at a minimum. If you can find a way to perform about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise every day, you’ll be well on your way. Discuss appropriate exercises with your doctor. If you follow this blog regularly, you’ll know that we often discuss ways you can stay active with limited mobility, as well.

What else can you do to keep heart disease at bay? The CDC recommends a number of things that are also contributors to overall health and wellbeing, so you don’t really have to do anything you might not already be doing to stay healthy. Eat a healthy diet. Maintain a healthy weight. In addition to avoiding cigarettes and other tobacco products, the CDC also recommends limiting alcohol intake.

Following these guidelines and working with your doctor will mean the only hearts you will ever have to worry about are chocolate ones.