February is Heart Health Awareness Month, a crucial initiative aimed at educating individuals about the significance of cardiovascular health. Sadly, most Americans will die of one of the cardiovascular diseases (heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, etc.)  Furthermore, poor heart health contributes to other diseases such as dementia, erectile dysfunction, and infections of the legs and feet which all reduce our quality of life. 

Our heart and blood vessels carry critical oxygen and nutrients to all the tissues of our bodies, and taking steps to maintain its well-being is essential for a long and healthy life.   Fortunately, steps to maintain a healthy heart are surprisingly simple and mostly fall into the three big categories of a healthy lifestyle: diet, exercise, and sleep.  In this blog post, we’ll explore some key heart-healthy tips that we can incorporate into our lives to promote cardiovascular wellness.

Incorporate a Heart-Healthy Diet

A nutritious diet is fundamental to heart health. While this is a broad topic, here are some well-accepted recommendations on what we should eat:

  1. Plant-based diet.  Extensive evidence supports a diet such as the  “Mediterranean diet,” which is mostly fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans and peas), and whole grains, with small amounts of lean proteins (fish or chicken). Importantly, potatoes are not included in the vegetable category and are starches which are carbohydrates.
  2. Healthy fats.  These tend to be plant-based, including omega-3 fatty acids, and are found in fish, avocados, flaxseeds, vegetable oils, and walnuts.  Extensive evidence demonstrates the benefits of olive oil, in particular.

And here are things we should avoid:

  1. Red meat (beef, pork, deer, and lamb) is one of the least healthy foods we can eat, even if leaner cuts, especially if it is cooked over an open flame.  While this is a delicate topic in Texas where we love our barbecue, cooking meat over open flame creates substances within the meat that are bad for our hearts and increase our risk for cancer, too.  While it’s not necessary to avoid it completely, limit your intake of red meat as much as possible. 
  2. Saturated fats and cholesterol (common in animal fats).   
  3. Sodium (table salt) should be avoided.  Importantly, most of the sodium in our diets is added to our foods by the manufacturers, so it’s important to choose products that are low in sodium to begin with.  
  4. Simple sugars such as table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are as bad for our cardiovascular system as cholesterol.  Most simple sugars in the American diet come from drinks such as fruit juices or soft drinks.  Choose diet soft drinks over sugary versions.  Fruit juices are best avoided.  Despite much marketing by the fruit juice industry, there just aren’t any health benefits to fruit juice, especially since many contain added sugar.
  5. Highly processed foods tend to have large amounts of salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats included.  Opt for raw foods that you prepare yourself to be sure there are minimal added fats, sugars, and salt.

Regular Exercise for Cardiovascular Fitness

Equally important to a good diet is exercise.  Fortunately, extensive evidence supports the benefit of even moderate amounts of exercise and we don’t need to join a gym or hire a trainer to get the benefits.  Even a brisk walk for 30 minutes 3 times a week has been shown to reduce the risk of heart attack by up to 40%, which is huge!  A good goal is at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week. Activities like brisk walking, jogging, or swimming can improve circulation, lower blood pressure, and enhance overall cardiovascular fitness.  The benefits of exercise have been shown to be even greater if your exercise occurs in outdoor, green spaces.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Obesity damages our cardiovascular systems in several ways.  Even small amounts of excess weight can worsen our lipid and cholesterol levels, increase our blood pressure, and increase the risk of diabetes and other disorders that damage our hearts and vessels.  Fortunately, if you are following a healthy diet and exercising regularly, excess weight is usually not a problem.  While exercise and diet are usually sufficient to maintain a healthy weight, some of us will need additional help from our doctors.  There are several medications and even surgical options available and benefits of weight loss can be seen almost immediately.

Stress Management for a Healthy Heart

Chronic, emotional stress can take a toll on our heart. Practice stress-reducing techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or yoga. Changes in employment and improving relationships can also help.  Cultivating a mindful approach to daily challenges can contribute significantly to heart health.

Quality Sleeping is a Heart-Healthy Habit

Adequate, quality sleep is vital for overall health, including heart health. Poor sleep has been linked to an increased risk of heart and vascular disease. Strive for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night to allow your heart and body to recharge and rejuvenate.  Sleeping longer or shorter than this range have both been associated with worse outcomes.  Even if you are sleeping the recommended number of hours, sleep quality is also important.  Sleep apnea, or other causes of poor sleep, are known to damage our cardiovascular system if left untreated for years.  If you have been told that you snore or stop breathing during your sleep, speak to your doctor to determine if you need a sleep study.

Regular Health Check-ups and Screenings

Regular health check-ups are crucial for early detection and prevention of heart-related issues. Schedule regular appointments with your healthcare provider to monitor blood pressure, weight, cholesterol levels, and other vital indicators. Early intervention can make a significant difference in managing heart health.

Final Thoughts

Even if we do all of the above, our genetics also play a big role in our cardiovascular future.  Therefore, if you have any concerning symptoms, such as chest pain, palpitations, difficulty breathing, etc., those should always be evaluated immediately.  Use Heart Health Awareness Month as a catalyst to prioritize your heart health and inspire others to do the same. Together, let’s build a healthier future for our hearts and bodies.