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improve heart healthFebruary is American Heart Month in the U.S., a national initiative to raise awareness of and encourage heart-healthy behaviors. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for men and women, with about 610,000 people dying every year. That’s 1 in every 4 deaths.

Coronary heart disease is the most common type, with 370,000 deaths, and 735,000 Americans suffer from a heart attack each year – one person every 40 seconds. And heart disease is estimated to cost more than $200 billion in the United States annually.

But the numbers don’t necessarily have to be this bad. With these sobering statistics, clearly, it’s important to prioritize your heart and adopt healthy habits, like a nutritious diet and regular exercise. Here is some information about cardiovascular disease and tips on how to improve heart health.

Types of Heart Disease

While most people think of heart disease as heart attacks, there are actually several types of cardiovascular disease. Here are some common definitions from WebMD:

  1. Coronary artery (or heart) disease (CAD), happens when the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart become blocked, which leads to reduced blood flow and oxygen to the heart. It can occur due to atherosclerosis, (hardening of the arteries), and can cause pain in the chest (angina), or lead to a heart attack.
  2. Arrythmias are an irregular beating pattern.
  3. Heart failure means that the heart doesn’t pump blood as well as it should to meet the body’s requirements. It can be a result of CAD, high blood pressure, cardiomyopathy or other health conditions.
  4. Heart valve disease is a malfunction of the valves that open and close to direct blood flow to the heart’s four chambers, the blood vessels and the lungs. It can cause blood flow to be blocked or blood to leak.
  5. Pericardial disease refers to the pericardium, which is the sac surrounding the heart, such as pericarditis (inflammation), which can be due to infection.
  6. Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle, whereby it is stiff, stretched or thickened, and may be unable to pump well. It can be due to genetic heart conditions, infections or reactions to drugs.
  7. Congenital heart disease occurs when the heart is forming in a fetus, which can lead to problems immediately after birth, or later in adulthood.

Symptoms of Heart Disease

Signs of heart disease vary somewhat according to the specific type of condition, but some common symptoms include:

  • Chest pain, tightness, pressure or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fainting
  • Pain in the neck, jaw, throat or back
  • Racing or slow heartbeat
  • Nausea or indigestion
  • Swelling in hands, ankles or feet
  • Excessive fatigue

If you experience these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. Taken alone, they don’t automatically indicate that you are suffering from heart disease, but it’s very important to be evaluated.

Reducing Risk through Diet

Of course, what we eat diet plays a role in heart disease, as it can contribute to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes, which can also increase the incidence of cardiovascular conditions. While there is a lot of information available about specific foods to consume to improve heart health, these are overall recommendations:

  1. Eat more fruits and vegetables – Full of nutrients and fiber, and low in calories, these natural foods are one of your best choices for any meal.
  2. Choose whole grains – Again, load up on fiber with whole grain bread, cereal, pasta, rice, and reduce refined grain products like white bread and crackers.
  3. Limit unhealthy fats – Decrease intake of butter, hydrogenated margarine and shortening, gravy and non-dairy creamers, and opt for canola oil, olive oil, avocados and nuts and seeds instead.
  4. Select low-fat proteins – Eat more fish, lean meats, beans and legumes, eggs, soy products and skinless poultry, versus bacon, hot dogs and fried meats.
  5. Use skim and low-fat dairy products – This is a good way to cut saturated fat intake.
  6. Cut sodium – Limit use of the salt shaker, condiments such as ketchup, and canned soups and frozen meals.
  7. Eat out at restaurants less and prepare meals at home – This way, you can control what ingredients are in your meals and how they are prepared.
  8. Watch portion sizes – Americans typically eat large portions, particularly at restaurants. Cut back on portions to control caloric intake.

Improve Heart Health Through Exercise and Lifestyle

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity (or a combination of both) throughout each week, along with resistance training at least twice weekly. The AHA also suggests that people spend less time sitting and more time being physically active, even in non-workout activities.

The heart is a muscle, responsible for circulating blood and oxygen to the body and brain to keep us alive. Like any muscle, it must be worked regularly to remain strong.

  1. Cardiovascular activity – Aerobic exercise improves circulation and reduces blood pressure and bad cholesterol, along with burning calories to help decrease body fat and regulating blood sugar.

It doesn’t matter what you do – whether jogging, cycling, swimming or whatever your preferred activity is – but you need to elevate your heart rate for a period of time during workouts, aiming for 3-6 times per week. Steady-state workouts, where you keep your heart rate at the same level throughout, like using the elliptical at the same resistance level for 30 minutes, for example, is valuable. Interval training, where you increase and lower your heart rate during set intervals of time, also is a great way to condition your heart. Consult with a personal trainer to learn what your target heart rate range should be.

And if you’re looking for a way to evaluate your heart health, try the 30:30 program on Octane Fitness machines. This challenging regimen, which consists of 30-second sprints followed by 30-second recovery periods, measures your heart rate recovery, which is a key indicator of your cardiovascular fitness. It’s simple to use and guides you through each interval. Use this program over time as a convenient way to assess progress in your heart heath.

  1. Resistance training – Strengthening your muscles improves overall fitness and helps reduce strain on the heart by making it easier to move and carry out daily activities. It also improves body composition by increasing muscle mass and helping to reduce body fat. Use free weights, resistance bands, selectorized or plate-loaded machines, body weight and other accessories to tax the major muscle groups in the body at least twice weekly.
  2. Stretching – While flexibility exercises don’t necessarily elevate the heart rate, they also make it easier to exercise and move overall by improving musculoskeletal health. This not only enables you to exercise better, but can help reduce the risk of falls and injuries.
  3. Lifestyle habitsTake good care of yourself by limiting alcohol intake, not using tobacco, avoiding drugs, maintaining a healthy weight, getting enough sleep, managing stress and regularly relaxing. See your doctor annually for check-ups, and undergo recommended screenings for your age. These behaviors are an important investment in your body, and can go a long way toward protecting your heart.