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Take a month to get your heart in order

In the U.S., heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. But it can be prevented and controlled. Even in a short month's time, you can do a lot to take better care of your heart.

Week 1: Scrutinize labels. Unhealthy fats and cholesterol can clog arteries. Salt can raise blood pressure. Sugar can pack on pounds. To avoid these risks for heart disease, read nutrition labels when you're grocery shopping. Look for foods with unsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, and low percentages of sodium and sugar.

Also, choose plenty of foods that come without nutrition labels: fresh fruits and vegetables. They are low in fat and sodium, and they contain fiber, which can help prevent high blood cholesterol. 

Week 2: Get moving. Like all muscles, your heart needs exercise. This week—and every week—aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking. Share your heart-healthy habit with a loved one—invite him or her to join you on a walk.

Week 3: Know your numbers. If you don't know your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, make an appointment this week with your doctor to have them checked. Having high blood pressure or too much LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) in your blood can put you at risk for heart disease.

Being overweight also makes heart disease more likely. You probably know if you're carrying too many pounds. But if you aren't sure, it's another thing to discuss with your doctor.

Your doctor can advise you on lifestyle changes or medicines to help you achieve heart-healthy numbers in all three areas.

Week 4: Vow to quit. Smoking harms the heart as well as the lungs. So if you light up, it's important to ditch the habit for good. Smoking also hurts your family and friends, because exposure to secondhand smoke can trigger heart problems in them. So quitting is an act of love—not only for your heart but also for all the hearts that surround you.

Sources: American Heart Association; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute