February is the perfect time to learn about heart disease and the steps you can take to help your heart.
Heart attacks continue to be the number one cause of death in the United States. Major risk factors for heart attacks that you cannot change are age above 65 years old, male gender and a strong family history of heart attacks.
Major risk factors that you can change are smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, physical inactivity, obesity, and diabetes. Smokers have a two to four times higher chance of having a heart attack than nonsmokers. Cholesterol and physical activity are discussed in greater detail below.
There are two types of cholesterol: HDL, “the good cholesterol,” and LDL, “the bad cholesterol.” LDL is raised by a diet high in cholesterol. Cholesterol is only found in animal products. LDL is what clogs the arteries that can lead to a heart attack. Diets high in fats typically have a large amount of cholesterol. Genetics also play a role in LDL levels – your family may have a history of having high or low LDL. You can also take medication to help lower your LDL. Regular exercise also lowers LDL.
HDL, “the good cholesterol” is beneficial when it is elevated. HDL helps to decrease the clogging in the heart’s vessels. Genetics again play an important role here as does diet and exercise. There are medications that can also raise HDL.
Your health care provider may recommend ways to help keep your numbers within a healthy-happy range. Some of these recommendations may include regular exercise to lose weight and eating heart smart.
A heart-smart diet includes healthy choices such as fruits, veggies, fish, lean meats, skinless poultry, whole grains, legumes, and low-fat dairy foods.
Limit sodium, sugar, saturated fat and trans-fat.
For as little as 30 minutes of exercise a day you can decrease your risk of heart attacks. Regular exercise can lower LDL, lower high blood pressure, and raise HDL. It is best to start slow and gradually move your way up. Walking is a good way to get started exercising.
It does not matter what form of exercise it is; you just need to start.
Try to find something you enjoy as it will make it more likely that you will stay with it for a long time. Adding variation can also help maintain your interest.
You may find exercising in a group or with a partner to be more enjoyable. Discuss with your healthcare provider before starting any exercise program.
Dr. John L. Redman is a board-certified family physician at Bayside Clinic. He is the medical director to Chambers Community Health Centers (Bayside Clinic and West Chambers Medical Center).