February is American Heart Month, and it takes on significant meaning for many people, given that cardiovascular disease is the number 1 cause of death in this country. Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease and stroke, causes 17.7 million deaths in the world each year.
While quitting smoking and limiting alcohol intake can have tremendous benefits for our cardiovascular systems, there’s more within our control. In addition to those big changes, small diet and lifestyle tweaks can make a significant difference on heart health.
Here are five things you can do to take care of your heart:
Start small by aiming for about 30 minutes of exercise daily. The Physical Activity Guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week to help improve cardiovascular health. Moderate exercise can include anything from taking a brisk walk and going for a swim to pushing a lawn mower or going to Zumba class.
There’s significant research linking stress to increased blood pressure, which ups the risk for heart disease. To combat this, do something each week to unwind, like getting a massage, meeting a friend for an exercise date, practicing mindfulness or doing a few yoga poses.
Many of us fall short of the daily recommendations for 25–38 grams/day for women and men, respectively. Fiber plays a role in decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease by helping to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. The main dietary sources of fiber, whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables are not only filling but also provide a boost of vitamins and minerals.
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While there is debate about the notion that saturated fat increases cardiovascular disease risk, it’s clear unsaturated fats benefit the heart. Omega-3 fatty acids from unsaturated fats, like fatty fish, have been shown to decrease triglyceride levels, reduce blood clotting, decrease stroke and lower blood pressure. Omega-3 fatty acids also help reduce damaging inflammation throughout the body, which can impair blood vessels and lead to heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna) weekly. Plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed oil, flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts.
Adding another serving of fruits or vegetables is as easy as squeezing some extra vegetables into your breakfast scramble or adding an extra slices of tomato to your sandwich at lunch. Consider swapping your mid-afternoon snack of peanut butter pretzels with a sliced banana and peanut butter instead. Without overhauling everything, figure out where it’s possible to make one small addition to your diet.
Remember — small changes add up. Fruits and vegetables are great sources of fiber, but also provide calcium, magnesium and potassium, all of which may help control blood pressure as well.