10 lifestyle changes for a healthy heart

Risk factors for heart disease are important things to think about all year round, but now in the midst of Heart Health Month, it may be the perfect time to reevaluate your habits and see what you can do to lead a healthier lifestyle.

Whether it’s trading in a glass of whole milk for low-fat milk, or taking an extra half hour out of your day to go for a walk around the neighborhood, small improvements each day can add up. Together they can help control cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and therefore reduce your risk for heart disease.

While some people are more at risk of heart disease than others because of family history, doctors say it is important for everyone to regularly get their blood pressure and cholesterol checked, and to be aware of the symptoms and risks of a heart attack.

Frances Zappalla, D.O., a pediatric cardiologist at the Nemours Cardiac Center at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., said that while both men and women face the same risk factors, the only thing that differs are the symptoms of a heart attack.

“Men have the more typical symptoms, such as crushing chest pain that radiates to the neck, shoulder and arms, shortness of breath and sweatiness for no reason,” she said.

Women have less common symptoms such as unexplained anxiety, dizziness, vomiting, and fatigue, Zappalla said, and they tend to not recognize the symptoms and ignore them. With heart disease as the leading cause of death for women, Zappalla said more women die in the hospital after their first heart attack and within the first year of their heart attack than men do, so it is important to take the symptoms seriously.

Here’s what you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease:

1. Exercise more – “Daily aerobic exercise is the number one thing that will improve cholesterol, blood pressure, [and prevent] diabetes,” Zappalla said. “Exercise improves mood, helps you sleep better, and helps with weight loss.” Kids should get a minimum of 60 minutes per day of moderately strenuous exercise, Zappalla said, and adults should get 30 minutes per day of any type of exercise from brisk walking to playing outside with the kids or swimming some laps.

2. Limit processed foods and eat more natural foods – Next to exercise, Zappalla said diet is extremely important in preventing heart disease. We need to be eating more real food, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, instead of processed and fast food which Zappalla says has “hidden salt” that many people aren’t aware of.

3. Get your lipid panel blood test – Every child is recommended to get a baseline lipid panel by 10 or 11 years old so doctors can identify children with high cholesterol in their genes. For a child who has diabetes or has a parent who has high cholesterol or had a heart attack, they may need to get their lipid panel check sooner, Zappalla said. Adults should get the tests once every several years.

4. Get your blood pressure checked – Adults should also get their blood pressure checked at least once a year, Zappalla said, because there are no symptoms. Referred to as the “silent killer,” high blood pressure can be controlled by exercise and healthy eating, as well as all of the other tips listed here.

5. Reduce stress – Stress increases the risk of heart disease, so it is important to limit it as much as possible. The body reacts to stress by releasing adrenaline, which then causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. Zappalla said reducing stress can be done by something as simple as a breathing exercise, or doing yoga or meditation.

6. Limit eating red meat - Some red meats are high in saturated fats, which can raise our cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends to go one day each week without eating meat.

7. Spend less time watching TV – Zappalla said kids should not spend more than 2 hours each day in front of a screen. Excessive time spent watching TV and going on the computer for both kids and adults is linked to poor eating habits and less physical activity.

8. Watch your weight – Being overweight and having belly fat can increase your chances of developing high blood pressure. Zappalla said women whose waist is over 35 inches, and men whose waist is over 40 inches dramatically increases your risk of heart disease.

9. Make healthy substitutions – When you cook there are a number of healthier ingredients to choose from that are lower in saturated fats and are better for you. For example, you can use 2 egg whites instead of a full egg, or soft margarine low in saturated fat instead of butter. Read more from the American Heart Association.

10. Avoid smoking – Smoking dramatically increases your risk for heart disease, and even those suffering from second hand smoke are at risk as well, Zappalla said. Smoking damages the walls of arteries around your heart, and increases your chance of a heart attack by making your blood more likely to thicken and clot.