February is Heart Month, to bring attention to the importance of cardiovascular health, and what we can do to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. Some factors we cannot control, like our age, gender and family history. So, let’s talk about the risk factors we CAN control:
1. Physical Activity
The World Health Organization believes that more than 60% of the world’s population is not sufficiently active due to increased urbanization and computerization. Physical activity at any age will help protect you against many chronic conditions including cardiovascular disease.
Incorporating daily exercise into your routine can help protect your heart by regulating your weight, improving your body’s use of insulin and promoting healthy blood vessels.
How much exercise should you get? For healthy adults the guidelines suggest: at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity a week, or a combination. And strength training exercises for all major muscle groups at least two times a week. You can spread out this exercise during the course of a week. Even small amounts of physical activity are helpful, and accumulated activity throughout the day adds up to provide health benefit.
The good news is that an increase in physical activity is associated with a reduction in cardiovascular risk, even if you have existing disease.
The evidence linking smoking with heart disease and cancer has been around since the 1940s and yet many still do not link the two together. Here is how tobacco use increases your risk of heart disease; it damages the lining of the blood vessels, increases fatty deposits in the arteries, raises LDL cholesterol (bad kind), and decreases HDL cholesterol (good kind) and the nicotine accelerates heart rate and raises blood pressure.
There are only benefits to quitting smoking, and within a short period of time you can reduce your cardiovascular risk to close to that of a person who has never smoked.
Eating a healthy and balanced diet plays a crucial role in keeping your cardiovascular system in good health as it impacts many other risk factors.
A healthy diet can help lower your risk of heart disease and stroke by:
Improving cholesterol levels
Reducing blood pressure
Helping manage body weight
Controlling blood sugar
What does a healthy, balanced diet look like?
Eating lots of vegetables and fruit – aim for 7-10 servings every day.
Choosing whole grain foods more often – avoid processed or refined grains like white bread and pasta.
Eating a variety of foods that provide protein – include fish, beans, lentils, tofu, dairy products and lean meat.
Avoid highly processed foods – fast food, chips, cookies, frozen pizzas and deli meats are some examples.
Avoid sugary drinks – energy drinks, fruit drinks, juice, soft drinks and flavored coffees have lots of sugar and almost zero nutrients.
4. High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure, also called hypertension is a leading risk factor in cardiovascular disease and the number one risk factor for stroke.
What is blood pressure?
Blood pressure is a measure of how much force the heart is using to pump blood around the body.
Systolic blood pressure (the top number) measures the force of the blood against your artery walls when it’s at its greatest.
Diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) measures the pressure of the blood when the heart relaxes and the force of the blood is at its lowest.
The Heart and Stroke Foundation provides varying blood pressure categories but please see your doctor for a proper blood pressure measurement.
A blood pressure that goes up and stays up above 140/90 is considered high blood pressure.
The following lifestyle factors can put you at risk for high blood pressure:
An unhealthy diet
Drinking too much alcohol
Lack of exercise