February is all about love. It’s the month of Valentine’s Day, where we focus on flowers and fancy restaurants and gooey, indulgent desserts. It’s the month of heart-shaped chocolate and candy hearts parceled out with sappy (or funny) greeting cards. We see hearts everywhere because that’s the symbol we identify with love month. But there’s more to February than meets the eye.
For obvious reasons, in the medical world, February is focused on heart health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year – that’s one in every four deaths. Even more alarming, every year about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack. Of these, 525,000 are a first heart attack and 210,000 happen in people who have already had a heart attack.
Sadly, many of our everyday habits aren’t exactly good for the ticker. If you’re at risk, it might be time to reevaluate your lifestyle and make some hard choices.
The most obvious habit to kick immediately is smoking. “Smoking can lead to elevated blood pressure, strokes, and heart failure,” says Dr. Lokesh Tejwani of Novant Heart Health & Heart Vascular Institute in Matthews. “Smoking is not just bad for your heart but for your whole body.” Second hand smoke is almost as dangerous; about 46,000 nonsmokers who live with a smoker die from heart disease each year. Even the now-popular e-cigarettes should be kicked to the curb. Dr. Tejwani warns that, since they’re relatively new, we don’t know much about their long-term effects. “They may do more harm than good.”
In that vein, you’ve probably heard that sitting is the new smoking. It’s true. If you sit for hours at a time at your job or spend hours on the couch watching TV, it’s time to get off your rear. Not an exercise junkie? “Just moving around is better than nothing at all,” Dr. Tejwani clarifies. Aim for around 10,000 steps each day.
An overhaul of your diet might be necessary as well. The first and most obvious foods to go should be the fried and processed ones. But having a diet that is made up mostly of low fat carbohydrates is dangerous as well. “Many of those comfort foods – bread, pasta, rice, potatoes – can lead to dangerous weight gain which puts too much pressure on the heart,” explains Dr. Philip Iuliano of the Sanger Clinic in Mint Hill. In his opinion, “the closer we get to a plant-based diet, the better it is for the heart.”
If you’re the type to always jump feet first into the latest diet craze, you might want to carefully assess the pros and cons before committing to a plan that only works short term. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” says Dr. Iuliano, “and most people won’t stick to a fad diet because it’s not sustainable.” Given that obesity is a primary contributor to heart disease, it’s important to find a regimen that is slow and steady and will be around for the long haul.
In short, if you suspect something you’re doing is not good for your heart, it’s probably not. Trust your gut. And while you’re at it, be friendly to your gut. Your heart will thank you.