February is Heart Health Month. Though this chilly month is coming to an end, the lessons of good heart health are something we can carry with us throughout the year.

Heart health is important. That might be an understatement as heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. In fact, every year, one in four deaths is caused by some form of heart disease. But there’s good news. Heart disease can often be prevented by making healthy choices, creating good new habits and managing existing health conditions.

So in honor of Heart Health Month, and your personal health, here are five keys to maintaining your best heart.

  1. Control your cholesterol and blood pressure. High cholesterol and high blood pressure are two easy-to-detect risk factors for heart disease. If you’re not sure about your current cholesterol levels or blood pressure, it’s probably time to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor. High levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol in blood can build-up in the walls of arteries, causing them to narrow over time and restrict the flow of blood to the heart. This could eventually lead to a heart attack. High blood pressure occurs when the blood pumps through the body at a higher pressure than it should. This can damage or weaken the arteries, heart, brain, kidneys, eyes and more. The first step to correcting high cholesterol or blood pressure is talking to a doctor. There are many well-known and well-tolerated pharmaceutical products that can help control these conditions immediately. However, simple lifestyle changes, like eating better, exercising, losing weight and cutting out cigarettes and alcohol, could end the need for drugs altogether. A couple of these lifestyle changes are so beneficial, we need to give them more attention here!
  2. Quit smoking. We all know smoking tobacco is bad for our health. It doesn’t just affect the health of your lungs. Smoking can have a major impact on heart health, too. In fact, quitting smoking may be one of the single best things a smoker can do to improve heart health. Smoking produces several negative effects. It can damage the lining of the arteries, leading to a fatty buildup that narrows them. It reduces the amount of oxygen in the blood, making the heart work harder. Smoking stimulates the body to produce adrenaline, which also makes the heart work harder. And it makes blood more likely to clot, increasing the chances of a heart attack or stroke. This may sound quite scary, but there is good news. The risk of heart damage decreases significantly and very quickly after a smoker quits. It’s never too late to kick the habit. If you’re a smoker…we believe in you! One last thing—even if you’re not a smoker, stay away from secondhand smoke. Research indicates it can have some of the same negative effects as smoking.
  3. Drink alcohol in moderation. A few years back, evidence started circulating that drinking alcohol (particularly red wine) might have benefits to heart health. Unfortunately, this may have led some to start drinking red wine as if it were a vitamin. Like most things that sound too good to be true, there’s more to this story. The reported benefits were seen in certain populations, but not all. They involved very small intakes of alcohol. And, the benefits reported in these studies may have been due to other factors such as exercise or diet. Even if drinking alcohol has minor health benefits, it’s indisputable that indulging in alcohol—particularly overindulging—can have very negative effects on heart health Drinking alcohol can lead to an irregular heartbeat, which can increase the risk of heart attack, heart failure and stroke. Alcohol can increase lipids (a type of fat) in the blood and, thereby, increase cholesterol and arterial plaque. Plus, overindulging in alcohol can increase the amount of lipids, triglycerides and toxic substances in the blood that can increase the risk of a host of heart diseases including heart attacks. So, if you don’t drink, good! Your heart is much better off. If you do drink, cut back and consider eliminating alcohol entirely from your diet.
  4. Watch your weight. Volumes of research have made the connection between being overweight and heart disease. Obesity can have a “ripple effect” on the heart. It is a risk factor for heart disease and it can lead to all sorts of other problems that contribute to heart disease, e.g. hypertension (high blood pressure), cholesterol abnormalities, and type 2 diabetes. The news isn’t all bad, though. Doctors say people who lose as little as five pounds can start to see improvement in their risk factors. If you’re carrying extra weight, talk to your doctor about a weight-loss plan. It’s not easy, but the benefit to you and your family will be worth it!
  5. Get active and eat healthy. Now that you’ve made it most of the way through this list, you may be noticing a theme: exercise and eating healthy are universal keys to good heart health. It’s important to have a conversation with your primary care doctor, but here are a few general rules to help most get started. An aerobic exercise program—brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming or jumping rope—can lower blood pressure and heart rate. Try to squeeze in thirty minutes a day at least five days a week. Resistance/strength training is the perfect complement to aerobic exercise since it can reduce fat and build muscle. Combining the two may help lower LDL cholesterol. Try to build muscles by working out with free weights or on weight machines twice a week. Or, add resistance training at home with resistance bands (which look like giant rubber bands) and old-fashioned body-resistance exercises such as push-ups, chin-ups and squats. Eat healthy by sticking with vegetables and fruits, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. Get protein from fish, skinless poultry, nuts and legumes. Focus on choosing good fats (for example, olive oil rather than margarine) and avoid sugar and overly processed foods. Eating healthy can seem complicated, but if you can follow these suggestions, you’re on the right track! We care about your heart because we care about you. Take a moment this Heart Health Month to be grateful for your heart health and to consider doing something to make it even better.