February is National Heart Month, a smart time to check your heart health and assess the degree to which your lifestyle is affecting your risk of heart attack, heart disease or stroke, and make positive changes for better cardiovascular health.
Good heart health is all about the basics: diet, exercise and genetics.
- Diet: What you put into your body
- Exercise: What you do, or don’t do, when it comes to physical activity
- Genetics: Your family history
While you cannot redefine your genetic history, you have the ability to influence your own health and longevity by making smart lifestyle choices, and using what you know about your background to improve your odds. Let’s look at each of these three factors in terms of strengthening your heart and reducing your risk of heart disease.
Foods to avoid include those with low nutrients, foods that are high in saturated fats (red meat, whole-fat dairy, egg yolks), fast food (which often is high in trans fats) and limiting alcohol to just a drink or two per day.
For a more complete list of heart-healthy foods see University of Maryland Medical Center’s heart healthy diet list.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends regular physical activity to reduce your risk of heart attack, stroke and heart disease. AHA’s recommendation is to get “at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise.”
An easy-to-remember and effective plan is 30 min./day for 5 days/week. If your schedule or current health condition makes the thought of doing a daily 30-minute routine overwhelming, you can break that 30 minutes up into two or three daily sessions of just 10-15 minutes each for positive results.
These levels will, for most people, ensure good maintenance of heart health. But if you need to also lower your blood pressure or reduce bad cholesterol levels, shoot instead for at least 40 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise for 3-to-4 days/week. Try walking, running, swimming or biking – as these exercises naturally maintain an elevated heart rate for an extended time.
For more recommendations on heart-healthy physical activity, check out AHA’s Heart-Healthy Recommendations for Physical Activity.
Your genetic background – your family tree and racial/geographic roots – can influence your risk of heart disease. But two recent studies from Northwestern Medicine suggest that a healthy lifestyle of good diet and exercise is far more influential in reducing your risk of heart disease:
- A 2010 study showed that cardiovascular health in middle age and beyond is less a gift from your genes and more earned by a healthy lifestyle.
- A second study showed that only a small percent of cardiovascular health is passed from parent to child; the bulk of negative or positive cardiovascular health resulted from lifestyle behaviors.
That said, if incidences of heart disease or stroke are in your family, the AHA cautions that your own risks are higher. So while knowing your family’s health history can help you avoid a heart attack or stroke, the AHA agrees that you can reduce your risk by making heart-healthy lifestyle changes.
Live Healthy. Live Smart.