Heart Health 101

Heart Health 101

Treat your heart with love during American Heart Month. While you are indulging in sweet treats and pampering your sweetie, don’t forget to give your own heart some TLC this month – and throughout the year. February is American Heart Month, and the American Heart Association (AHA) promotes awareness of heart disease and ways to prevent it to help people live longer and healthier lives.

Heart Health 101

Cardiovascular diseases consistently rank as the leading cause of death in the United States, exceeding all forms of cancer, for both men and women. Even more concerning, under AHA’s new blood pressure guidelines, almost half the U.S. adult population has high blood pressure. Women, on average, are seven years older than men when they have their first heart attack. They often experience vague or subtle symptoms, making it more difficult to detect. Studies also show women are much more likely than a man to die within a year of having a heart attack and cardiovascular disease causes 1 in 3 deaths each year. Gender aside, keeping your heart healthy goes a long way to aging well and preventing other chronic conditions.

Know your numbers

It’s important to stay on top of your blood pressure, HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, triglycerides, body mass index, and waist circumference. Research shows too much belly fat increases your risk of heart disease. In women, elevated triglycerides, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and smoking all increase the risk of heart disease.

High blood pressure puts you at risk for heart attack, stroke, heart failure, kidney disease, vision loss, angina, and peripheral artery disease. The more you know about your body and monitor your health, the more you are able to prevent more serious conditions from developing.

Monitor blood pressure regularly

Blood pressure, comprised of two numbers, is one of the most important indicators of heart health. You should have your blood pressure checked on a regular basis. A diagnosis of high blood pressure must be confirmed with a medical professional.

The AHA’s newest guidelines lowered the definition of high blood pressure. In the past, blood pressure greater than 140/90 mmHg was considered Stage I Hypertension. It is now defined as a blood pressure greater than 130/80 mmHg. A normal range is less than 120/80 mmHg.

The first number represents your systolic blood pressure and measures the pressure in your arteries when your heartbeats. The second number represents diastolic blood pressure, or the pressure in your arteries when your heart is at rest. It’s important to understand your readings, which is why you should consult with your physician.

Any rise in blood pressure is a cause for concern and could mean you are headed for heart problems. The updated guidelines can help doctors diagnose hypertension earlier, and allow patients to make lifestyle changes and interventions sooner.

Six ways you can lower your blood pressure and keep your heart healthy
  1. Keep your blood pressure in check
  2. Get regular check-ups with your physician
  3. See if you are appropriate for BP-lowering medication
  4. Purchase a blood pressure machine that you can use at home
  5. Check, change and control your BP through AMA’s CCC Tracker
  6. Take advantage of free screenings in your area, but make sure to follow up with your doctor
Know your risk factors
  • Genetic risks include positive family history, age, male gender, African Americans
  • Comorbidities including diabetes, high cholesterol, and kidney disease
  • Lifestyle risks include eating an unhealthy diet, too much stress, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, drinking excessive alcohol, and smoking

If you recognize any of these risk factors, it is important to be proactive. Seek out a medical professional and make the necessary lifestyle changes. Sign up for a weight loss or smoking cessation program, join a gym, and add more fruits and veggies to your diet.

Start an exercise program

Exercise is good for the body, mind, and spirit. Not only do you want to do some form of heart-pumping exercise, but it’s important to keep weight gain in check, especially deep visceral belly fat.

  • For maintaining heart health, the AHA recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise five days per week and moderate to high-intensity muscle-strengthening at least two days per week
  • For lowering high blood pressure, AHA recommends 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise 3-4 times per week

Even short bursts of exercise have benefits. Try taking a walk for 10 minutes, using the stairs, parking farther away at work or stores, or getting up from your desk and moving throughout the day. It’s never too late to start exercising, and older adults can try lower impact options such as walking, water aerobics or senior fitness classes.

Eat a heart-healthy diet

The AHA recommends a low salt diet for blood pressure reduction. Here are some tips on how to reduce your sodium intake:

  • Avoid buying processed foods – processed and canned foods are filled with salt and preservatives!
  • Buy fresh produce (fruits, vegetables, and meats)
  • Read the labels on your food and check sodium levels
  • Choose “low-salt” or “unsalted” options when possible
  • Try to cut down on red meat and high-fat meats
Manage your stress

Relaxing is easier said than done, but it is important to set aside time for yourself to decompress from life’s many stressors. Relaxation can improve your physical and mental health and overall well-being.

  • Go for a walk
  • Strive for 7-8 hours of sleep
  • Take a hot bath
  • Sign up for a yoga class
  • Read a book
  • Try meditation or a counselor
Visit a physical therapist

A physical therapist can help create an exercise program for heart health, especially therapists and clinics that specialize in cardiac rehab after a heart attack, angioplasty, or heart surgery. Exercises such as jogging, brisk walking, cycling, and resistance training not only get your heart pumping but can help lower blood pressure. PTs can screen for risk factors and develop a plan of care to support you on your road to recovery. Contact your nearest Ivy Rehab clinic to see how they can help!

Heart disease can develop silently over time, or strike without warning as a heart attack.

Make February the month you see your doctor for your annual checkup, have your blood pressure, cholesterol, and A1C tests, and discuss concerns overweight, stress, or other lifestyle factors. It’s never too late to take action towards a healthy heart!

Article Reviewed by Holly Lookabaugh-Deur, PT, DSc, GCS, CEEAA

Holly Lookabaugh-Deur, PT, DSc, GCS, CEEAA is a practicing physical therapist and a partner and Director of Clinical Services at Ivy Rehab Network. Deur is board certified as a geriatric clinical specialist and certified exercise expert for aging adults with more than 35 years of clinical experience.  She is certified as an aquatic and oncology rehabilitation specialist and serves as adjunct faculty at Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University.  


The medical information contained herein is provided as an information resource only, and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultation with healthcare professionals. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-provider relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition. If you think you have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. IvyRehab Network, Inc. disclaims any and all responsibility, and shall have no liability, for any damages, loss, injury or liability whatsoever suffered as a result of your reliance on the information contained herein.