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American Heart Month: 5 steps to a healthy heart

February 3, 2015

In conjunction with Valentine's Day, a holiday dedicated to the heart, February has been deemed American Heart Month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's a time to discuss potential health risks and celebrate the smart decisions you make every day to keep your heart at its best.

A handful of lifestyle factors play into the risk of heart disease, but if you take the proper steps, you can prevent or fight back against the illness day by day.

1. Eat well
While counting calories and cutting back on fat intake are some of the most common nutritional goals, it's important to ensure that your body gets enough vitamins and nutrients. Make sure you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to stay healthy and protect your heart. Additionally, eating fish twice a week provides your body with omega-3 fatty acids, which may be helpful in combating coronary artery disease.

You should limit how much sodium you eat each day - less than 2,400 milligrams is optimal to maintain low blood pressure. Pay attention to the amount of sugar that's in beverages or snacks and try to cut back on your intake. Select dairy products that have little to no fat, choose wheat bread products instead of white and eat red meat such as steak in moderation.

"To make working out easier, break your fitness plan down into smaller chunks throughout the day."

2. Exercise
The recommended amount of exercise for adults is 150 minutes each week, or 30 minutes a day for five days. This refers to aerobic exercise, activities that raise your blood pressure, but any movement that burns calories is good for your heart.

To make working out easier, break your fitness plan down into smaller chunks throughout the day. You could also join exercise classes, such as yoga or Zumba dancing, to add a bit of fun to the activity. Stretching and strength exercises give you even more benefits such as stamina, balance and coordination when you incorporate them into your routine.

Be sure to consult your doctor before making changes to your exercise routine. He or she will help you devise a plan that's right for your body.

3. Quit smoking
The dangerous effects of smoking cigarettes, including its contribution to developing heart disease, have become more transparent in recent decades. Chemicals in cigarettes affect your blood pressure, in addition to causing other health issues. Smoking can also have an impact on other risk factors, such as increasing your chances of blood clots and limiting your stamina in physical activities. Even if you've been smoking for years and have related health problems, quitting today will eliminate further strain on your body.

Kick back and relax for heart health.

4. De-stress
High blood pressure can lead to heart disease, especially when it's chronic or constant. Keep yourself safe by establishing coping mechanisms for stressful days. Common ways to manage anxiety include deep breathing exercises and positive self-talk, or focusing on encouraging and supportive thoughts about yourself. By practicing these methods for controlling your stress, you can bring your blood pressure down, thus reducing your risk for heart disease.

5. Manage weight
The most effective way to keep your weight under control is with calculated diet and exercise. By eating the necessary vitamins and nutrients, limiting your fat intake and getting enough physical activity to burn those calories, it'll be easier to maintain a healthy weight. To determine if you need to drop pounds, calculate your body mass index (BMI) based on your height and weight using a BMI calculator like this one from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. If your BMI is 25 or higher, losing between 5 and 10 percent of your body weight can bring you positive health effects.