Keys to a Happy Heart

Did you know that your heart beats more than 36 million times a year? And each time a healthy heart beats, it uses the force it would take you to squash a tennis ball? You probably don’t spend much time thinking about how hard your heart works for you. In fact, we often tend to take it for granted. During American Heart Month, we not only want you to think about your heart, we want you to make sure you are working hard to keep your heart going strong.

Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death, not just in the U.S. but around the world. One in four deaths in the U.S. is due to heart disease. Each year, more than 700,000 Americans have heart attacks. That’s the bad news. The good news is there are things you can do to reduce your risk. The American Heart Association (AHA) places the risks for heart disease into three categories. The AHA is an independent organization that provides some health information on behalf of your health plan.

Risks You Can’t Change

Even if you can’t do anything about them, it helps to be aware of this category of risk factors. For example, knowing that the likelihood of heart disease increases as you get older should help you focus more on taking care of your heart as the birthdays start adding up. Other factors in this category include gender, race and family history. The AHA reports that males have a greater (and earlier) risk of heart disease than women. Mexican-Americans, native Americans, native Hawaiians and some Asian-Americans have higher risks. And children with parents who have heart disease are more likely to develop it, too.

Risks You Control

Although you can’t control all risk factors, there is still much you can do to reduce your risk of developing or worsening heart disease. Here are some risk factors with some advice on how to reduce or eliminate their effects on your heart.

Tobacco Use: Quitting tobacco use is one of the quickest ways to reduce your risk of heart disease. If you smoke, your risk is between two and four times the risk of a nonsmoker. This includes cigarettes, pipes and cigars. Risk for cigarette smokers seems to be higher than for cigar or pipe smokers, however. And if you don’t smoke, please be careful of secondhand smoke. Research shows that nonsmokers who are exposed to the smoke of others have an increased risk for heart disease. Quitting may be a quick way to reduce your risk, but we know it is not the easiest. Talk to your benefits administrator or human resources contact about tobacco cessation programs.

High Cholesterol: The higher your blood cholesterol is, the greater your risk for heart disease. And if other risk factors are present along with high cholesterol, the risk is even greater. To make sure that your levels are in line, you need to get regular cholesterol screenings. When you do, you’ll get several numbers — total cholesterol, “good” cholesterol, “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides. If any of these numbers are not in an acceptable range, your doctor can help. Changes to your diet and increased physical activity may be enough to control your cholesterol. If not, your doctor may prescribe medication. Just be sure to take the medication as prescribed. You may need regular follow-up appointments to avoid potential side effects.

High Blood Pressure: High blood pressure makes your heart work even harder than it already does. If you haven’t had your blood pressure checked recently, you need to do it soon. If you use an at-home blood pressure monitor or a blood pressure machine often found in drug stores or in your workplace, remember that you should still get your blood pressure checked by a medical professional on a regular basis.

A heart-healthy diet and physical activity can help lower your blood pressure. Chronic high blood pressure may require medication. Taking the medication as directed is very important. Skipping a dose or taking doses too close together can cause problems. Also, be sure to check with your doctor or pharmacist about possible interactions with any other medications you may be taking.

Diabetes: If you have diabetes, your risk of heart disease goes up. But to keep that risk as low as possible, you need to work closely with your doctor to manage your condition. Controlling your blood sugar, and any other risk factors you may have, can have a positive impact on your overall risk for heart disease. Weight loss and management also are important factors in controlling your blood sugar.

Physical Inactivity: With most of the risks that you control, being physically inactive can increase that risk. But if you don’t regularly work out your body (and your heart!), that’s a risk factor in itself. Here are some AHA recommendations:

  • At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity five days per week
  • At least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity three days per week
  • Moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least two days per week for additional health benefits

If you haven’t been active, this may sound like a lot, but don’t let that stop you. Break up your activity into shorter times. Even a brisk 10- or 15-minute walk three times a day can make a big difference. As you get stronger, you can add time and intensity. Any activity that makes your body move will burn calories and make your heart stronger. And if you are already active, consider stepping it up. Work a little longer or a little harder. The benefits are great and your heart will thank you! Be sure to talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise program, especially if you have not been active in a while.

Obesity/Excess Weight: Another risk that greatly impacts other risk factors is excess weight. Overweight people tend to have higher blood pressure and higher cholesterol. Even with no other factors, carrying around excess body fat increases your risk of heart disease. Weight management is not easy for many people. Along with regular physical activity, good nutrition can help you manage your weight. After all, weight control is about calories in and calories burned.

The AHA website offers lots of helpful hints on eating heathy. For example, avoid trans fat and partially hydrogenated oils and limit saturated fat, sodium, sweets and red meats. Eat more fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans, fish and low-fat or fat-free dairy products. Be sure to watch your portions, too. A meal at many restaurants is often much more than the recommended portion for weight loss or maintenance.

Other Contributing Factors

Excessive alcohol use and stress may also add to your risk of heart disease. Too much alcohol can lead to high blood pressure, cause heart failure and even lead to a stroke. If you do drink, limit it to no more than two drinks a day for men and one a day for women. Stress may directly lead to poor heart health. It also can lead to overeating, excessive alcohol use, not exercising or even starting smoking. We can’t always avoid stressful situations, but we need to do our best to manage them.

Thank Your Heart

Now that you know how hard your heart works and what you can do to return the favor, we hope you use American Heart Month as a starting point for lifestyle and heart-healthy changes that will last a lifetime.