It’s the beginning of a new year and millions of Americans are committing to living healthier. Gym membership sales skyrocket in January every year. Diet programs also see spikes in new participants at the start of each new year. Even though many ambitious New Year’s resolutions seem to fizzle out by about March, keeping up a healthier lifestyle year round means a healthier heart, and a healthier heart means a longer life.
Heart disease is the single greatest cause of death among Americans. In fact, heart disease is more deadly than five other leading causes of death combined. The American Heart Association estimates that 64 million Americans are living with some form of cardiovascular disease. That’s more than 20 percent of us. Making simple changes to your lifestyle can prevent devastating cardiovascular concerns and promote lifelong heart health. Diet and exercise are key, but so is self discipline. Here are tips to keep your ticker in check.
Step One: Go natural.
Here’s a not so well kept secret: fad diets don’t work, and obesity continues to be a major issue for millions of Americans. Getting the weight off in a safe way requires a lasting commitment to eating healthy. Unfortunately, heart health doesn’t come in pre-packaged meal. Changing your diet to include heart smart foods is a major step to maintaining a healthy heart. Here’s what you need to do:
- Get plenty of fiber. Fiber helps with weight, appetite control and contributes to healthy cholesterol levels. You should have a minimum of 25 grams of fiber everyday, but shoot for 40 grams.
- Eat your veggies. Along with being high in fiber, fruits and vegetables are full of heart-protecting antioxidants. Make sure you eat at least five servings a day of colorful vegetables (like berries, peppers, and carrots) and don’t forget the leafy greens. Green veggies contain folate, which is essential for heart health.
- Curb your carbs. Too many carbohydrates can cause your blood sugar to fluctuate drastically, leaving you with greater risks for developing heart disease and diabetes. Eat whole grain whenever you can and limit the amount of sugar you consume.
- Cut the salt. I know, who doesn’t love salty snacks? But a diet high in sodium can cause major issues and high blood pressure. The recommended daily sodium intake is 2300 mg. That’s about a teaspoon. Most of us consume at least twice that. Be conscious of how much salt you eat and take steps to limit your sodium levels.
- Lose the booze. Excessive drinking robs your body of essential vitamins needed to maintain good heart health. So limit your alcohol intake, or cut out booze all together.
Step Two: Say no to trans fats.
Your body needs fats in order to produce energy and promote cell growth, but the problem is most of us consume way too many fats. Plus the fats we consume are often the wrong kinds of fat, which is really bad for the heart.
Trans fats are created when oils are injected with hydrogen. Think french fries, cookies, anything fried, popped, or found in a drive-through is likely to come with trans fats. Trans fats are so bad that state and local governments are starting to look at the long term effects they have on our bodies. This January, California became the first state to completely ban the use of trans fats in restaurants. This law makes eating out a little safer, but what about the food you have at home?
- Make sure you check the nutrition labels on store bought items. By law, trans fats are required to be listed separately from other saturated fats.
- Check ingredients for words like “hydrogenated.” Products with hydrogenated anything should be avoided.
- If you are eating out, avoid fried foods, share portions and don’t be afraid to ask how your food is prepared. Lean towards ordering baked, grilled or broiled foods.
Don’t be afraid of fats all together. There are good fats that your heart actually needs. Monounsaturated fats can help lower blood pressure and promote healthy cholesterol levels. Foods like avocados, almonds and olive oil are great sources of fat. Yes, it’s true, your heart needs guacamole.
Step Three: Quit smoking.
Smoking is the single most preventable cause of death in the United States. Every year, nearly half a million Americans die from complications directly related to smoking. Most would associate death from smoking with lung cancer or other respiratory conditions, but 135,000 deaths are related to cardiovascular disease. Even if you diet and eat well, smoking can still leave you three times more likely to develop heart disease than someone who doesn’t smoke.
Don’t try to quit smoking cold turkey. To find help, check out the American Heart Association’s smoker’s resources. Quitting isn’t easy, but your heart will definitely thank you.
Step Four: Get moving.
As little as 30 minutes a day of movement, any kind of movement, contribute to keeping your heart healthy. Your heart is a muscle and it needs exercise. Find something you love to do and make it part of your routine. Here are a few tips to make sure your workout is optimal:
- Start slow. It’s not necessarily a good idea to go out and run a marathon in the name of heart health. Not on your first day, anyway. Limit your workout to 30 minutes a day for three to four days a week. The more you workout, the more your endurance levels will increase. You can opt for longer workouts once your body has built up some endurance.
- Drink water. Make sure you hydrate before, after, and during your workout. You should drink at least 64 ounces of water every day. Try not to guzzle water during your workout. Take small sips and then drink plenty of water when you’re finished.
- Stretch. Spend some time stretching before you work out and when your muscles are warm, stretch some more to cool down. Not stretching leads to soreness and soreness leads to not wanting to workout. It’s a vicious cycle.
- Workout with a friend. Find a buddy committed to his or her own cardiovascular care and train together. You’ll be especially thankful on those mornings when staying in bed seems much more appealing than breaking a sweat before sunrise. Accountability is everything.
Written by Sarah Nelson for Causecast.org