February is Heart Month, a nationwide observance that seeks to raise awareness for heart disease and its risk factors. This is an important cause, as heart disease remains the leading cause of death in both men and women, claiming the lives of more than 600,000 Americans every year.
Throughout the month of February, you’ll likely hear about several steps you can take to improve your heart health and reduce your likelihood of being diagnosed with heart disease. But if you’re starting from square one, making healthy changes all at once can be overwhelming.
“Leading a heart-healthy lifestyle isn’t one big change. It’s a handful of little decisions that we make over time,” says Kevin Shinal, MD, Lankenau Heart Institute cardiologist at Paoli Hospital, part of Main Line Health.
In the spirit of Heart Month, we outline four healthy behaviors—one for each week of February—that you can adopt to get you on the path to a healthier heart.
Week 1: Add some color to your plate
You know you should be eating more fruits and vegetables, but what’s the magic number that you need to lower your risk for heart disease?
According to a February 2017 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, five servings of produce per day can slightly lower your risk of heart attack and stroke, but 10 servings per day can lower it by up to 28 percent. For reference, 10 servings equates to about five cups.
At first, this might sound impossible. But look for opportunities to add fruits or vegetables to dishes you’re already eating, like adding berries to yogurt, basil or kale to pasta or peppers to a salad or stir-fry. You can make healthy substitutions, too. Instead of an afternoon protein bar, opt for an apple or banana instead.
Week 2: Pick a healthy hobby
After a long day, it’s easy to turn on the TV and tune out for the evening. But this week, find another hobby to occupy your time after work or in between plans with friends.
“We associate watching TV with the couch, but there’s a middle ground here. Turn on your favorite show and for 20 minutes, walk or jog in place. You’re entertained and you’re active,” offers Dr. Shinal.
It’s not just TV, either. In the age of screens, it’s easy to get wrapped up scrolling through news and social media on your cell phone, too. This week, allot one hour of screen time per night and spend the rest of the evening doing a stress-free activity like reading, meditation, writing or cooking. If you must use your phone, use it for a phone call to a friend instead of a text conversation or Twitter exchange.
Activities like these can help you combat stress—a common side effect of a society that’s constantly ‘on.’ And while chronic stress itself isn’t a risk factor for heart health, several studies have suggested a link between the two.
“We know that people who suffer from chronic stress often have high blood pressure and are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like smoking, stress eating, drinking too much or not exercising,” says Dr. Shinal. “That’s why it’s crucial to take time away from those behaviors and factors that might contribute to stress, and find healthy ways to unwind.”
Week 3: Schedule a sweat session
Exercise isn’t easy to commit to, but it’s one of the best and most impactful things you can do to improve your overall health and reduce your risk for heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity like running, walking or biking at least five days per week for optimal heart health. Amidst a busy schedule of professional and personal obligations, this can feel like a lot. But look at it, instead, as smaller windows of opportunity to get active.
“150 minutes breaks down to half hour of moderate exercise, five days per week. That can be a brisk walk around the neighborhood, a quick stop at the gym on the way home from work, or a light jog in place in the living room while you watch the evening news,” says Dr. Shinal.
If you’re having trouble committing to 30 minutes, commit to 15 minutes twice a day. In the morning, try a gentle yoga routine. Before dinner, go for a quick walk to de-compress from the day. These might seem like small steps, but they can add up to make a big difference to your heart health.
Don’t be afraid to try something new, either. Ask a friend if you can join them for a fitness class, or if they’ll join you as you try something new. You might learn that you enjoy classes and routines you haven’t tried before!
Week 4: Go to bed early
Sleep is often the first thing we sacrifice when our schedules are packed full of social and career obligations. This week, put it back on your to-do list.
If you regularly get less than six hours of sleep per night or struggle with insomnia, you could be putting yourself at a greater risk for diabetes, depression, high blood pressure and weight gain. Unfortunately, because these sleep patterns often start early in life, many of us fall into the habit of thinking six hours of sleep or less is normal or, even worse—good.
While not enough sleep can be bad for your heart be careful not to oversleep, either. People who regularly slept for more than nine hours per night had more calcium buildup in their arteries than those who slept for seven hours per night. Aim for seven to nine hours regularly.
Know your numbers
Taking steps like these can help improve your heart health, but the work doesn’t stop here. To continue to keep your heart health top of mind and a priority, make an appointment with your primary care doctor or cardiologist for a review of cardiac health indicators like cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), body weight and triglycerides.
Knowing these important numbers can help you have a better understanding of your overall heart health and, if necessary, you can work with your doctor to manage these risk factors.