Six basics to being heart smart

Being that it is American Heart Month, here are even more tips to help you understand the basics of good heart health. It seems that every few weeks there is new advice about how to take care of your heart. And in some cases, advice from one expert seems to directly contradict another.
To help clear up any confusion, here are six “basics” of smart heart care:
Lose excess weight
The more extra weight you carry around, the harder your heart has to work just to get you through the day. Excess weight increases the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and the metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of medical disorders that increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. As you might imagine, none of these bode well for your heart. For many people, changes in eating and activity can result in significant weight loss and better stamina. Lose the weight, and you’ll not only look and feel better, you’ll have a healthier heart.
Eat (and drink) smart
The smarter you are about what you put in your mouth, the easier it will be to maintain a healthy weight — and a healthy heart. Build most of your meals around fresh, whole foods such as vegetables and fruits. Include whole grains and protein sources such as fish, poultry, lean meats, beans and tofu. Try to avoid saturated fats, processed foods and “empty” calories such as chips, sweets, pastries and soft drinks that provide little nutrition and lots of fat, sugar and salt.
Watch your blood pressure
Blood pressure is measured in two numbers. The first number (systolic) indicates the pressure on the walls of your blood vessels when your heart beats; the second (diastolic) indicates the pressure between beats. Ideally, your blood pressure should be at or below 120/80. When the pressure measures higher than normal, you may have a greater risk of heart disease. High blood pressure has no symptoms, so have yours checked every year. You can improve your blood pressure by eating less salt, sodium and exercising more.
Check cholesterol
There are two kinds of cholesterol: LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and HDL (“good” cholesterol). A build-up of LDL cholesterol can clog your arteries, which increases your risk of heart attack or stroke. “Good” HDL cholesterol carries “bad” cholesterol away. Ask your doctor how often you should have your cholesterol levels checked. A low-fat diet and regular exercise can help keep your cholesterol levels where they should be; in some cases, your doctor may also prescribe medication. Speak with your doctor or a cardiologist if you are concerned about cholesterol.
Be active
Your heart is a muscle, and like any muscle, exercise will make it work better. Commit to getting at least 30 minutes of aerobic physical activity almost every day. Choose something you enjoy, such as walking, biking or swimming. If you like to watch TV in the evening, walk on a treadmill or elliptical trainer during your favorite shows instead of sitting on the couch. If time is an issue, exercise in “chunks” of 10 minutes or whatever works with your schedule.
Quit smoking
Smoking is considered the most dangerous risk factor in the development of cardiovascular disease. And, it is the most preventable. It has been proven beyond a doubt to raise your blood pressure and raise the risk of stroke and heart attack. Smoking is also the most preventable risk factor. Speak with your doctor about quitting, and your risk will drop sharply. Secondhand smoke can also harm your cardiovascular system, so avoid smokers and smoky places, too.
In addition to making lifestyle choices that benefit your heart, talk to your doctor about other risk factors that may influence your heart’s health; for example, a family history of heart problems. Together, you and your doctor can assess your risk and determine a plan for optimal health.

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