Show Your Heart Some Love This February

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February is American Heart Month making it the perfect time to focus on healthy lifestyle changes for your cardiovascular health. While we often associate healthy eating, exercise, and other healthy habits with trying to lose weight, there are other benefits to making subtle changes in these categories. One of these is improved cardiovascular health resulting in better management of blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels. Making small, maintainable changes in your life is the best way to improve your health. With sustainable choices, you will make a lasting difference in your body that your heart will thank you for.

Eating a healthy diet is not about being perfect. It is about having a maintainable balance that allows you to enjoy food and keep your body functioning to its best ability. Looking for healthier alternatives to your favorite less-healthy foods is a great place to start! For example, if you love candy bars, try slicing a banana in half and adding a little peanut butter, a couple peanuts and a small drizzle of chocolate on top. This gives your body a great source of carbs, a healthy fat, some protein, and a little sweetness for your sanity. Another easy, flexible option to make sure you are getting a variety of nutrients is simply by keeping your plate colorful. Adding in a variety of fruits and vegetables will not only make your plate look pretty, it is great for your body too! This option not only emphasizes variety, but will encourage you to try new foods. If you head to the farmers market or grocery store and see a new vegetable that looks fun to try, challenge yourself to get creative in the kitchen, or just toss it into a curry or stir-fry with other veggies you know you like.

A great option if you are looking for a little more structure to eating healthy is following the Mediterranean diet. This diet emphasizes healthy fats, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, as well as beans, nuts, and seeds. It has been shown to help manage blood pressure, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease as much as 30-60%. This diet is more plant based which can lead to lower cholesterol levels. The Mediterranean diet has been featured in our Extension programs many times, and there are plenty of helpful links on our website. Visit the Sampson County Extension website for more information and to explore this diet through a program called Med vs Meds. You can visit us at sampson.ces.ncsu.edu or call us at 910.592.7161 for more information.

Showing your heart some love also means taking time every day to move your body in some capacity. While it is recommended by the CDC for adults to exercise with moderate intensity for 150 minutes a week, getting in any kind of movement has its benefits. Exercise does not have to mean going to the gym every day. Gyms offer great programs for a variety of ages, but there are plenty of ways to move your body that do not require a membership. Going for a bike ride, walking a pet, gardening, and even cleaning your house are all great ways to get your body moving. You can get active no matter who you are, where you live, or the time barriers you have. Increasing your movement is more simply decreasing the amount of time you sit. At work, you could take a couple moments each hour to go for a walk down the hall or do some quick stretches at your desk. If you have to run errands, challenge yourself not to park in the closest spot you can find; those extra steps add up. Whatever it is, finding a way to move your body each day will help control your blood pressure and reduce your risk of some diseases.

Healthy eating and exercise are often the first things that come to mind when thinking about living a healthy lifestyle, however, there are many other healthy habits that you and your heart can benefit from. Sleep is a primary one that is often overlooked. Adults need at least seven hours of sleep each night, however, many adults do not meet this minimum. While getting less than seven hours of sleep every once in a while will not have a harmful effect, relying on less than seven hours nightly can pose serious health risks. Not only will it increase your risk for obesity and Type 2 diabetes, but having sleep problems means your blood pressure stays higher for longer periods of time resulting in an increased risk for heart disease and stroke. When you sleep, your blood pressure goes down. Getting your full seven hours will reduce your risk of heart disease by balancing your blood pressure and providing your body the necessary rest and recovery it needs. There are many ways to get better sleep, but I challenge you to try and stick with a regular bedtime and wake-up time for this month and see if it makes a difference in your overall wellbeing.

Another habit often overlooked but that has been becoming increasingly popular is meditation. There are so many great, free programs for guided meditation on the internet now. It is an easily accessible way to lower stress levels and reduce your heart rate and lower high blood pressure. There are many other mental health benefits that come from meditation as well, but as far as heart health, meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. Even just ten minutes of meditation a day makes a difference and allows your body to reap some of the benefits that come from it. While meditating can be challenging at first due to our constant on-the-go lifestyle, consciously making the effort to be more mindful and slow down can do wonders for your heart health.

As you can see, it does not require a lot of time or money to improve your heart health. Making small, maintainable changes in your lifestyle will provide you with a sustainable routine that will make a difference in the health of your heart and cause lasting benefits. Take this month associated with love to show your heart a little extra care. You would be surprised how the habits you form in one month will carry over each day. Before you know it, it will be a second nature part of your daily routine.

This article was written by Alaina Walsh, Extension Master Food Volunteer. For more information from our Family & Consumer Sciences program, contact Sydney Knowles, Family & Consumer Sciences Agent, at 910-592-7161 or Sydney_knowles@ncsu.edu.

February National Heart Month