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Heart Smarts: Tips for a Stronger, Healthier Heart
February 1, 2023
Read Time - 10 minutes
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Easy-to-use tips to improve your heart health

Most of us think of hearts when we think of the month of February; all those Hallmark cards, candy hearts and heart-shaped chocolate boxes. Not to take away from those matters of the heart, but here at Sesame we have something different in mind. We know February as American Heart Month; a time to focus on your heart health. That means turning your attention to that small but crucial organ that pumps blood throughout your body.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among Americans. Nearly half of all American adults–47% or 116 million people–have high blood pressure (hypertension). High blood pressure, in turn, served as the primary or contributing cause to more than 670,000 deaths in 2020 alone. Keeping up your heart health can save you hundreds–if not thousands—in medical expenses. It can also prevent potentially fatal conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease and heart attack. It’s never too late to help your heart. Use the tips below to improve your vascular function for a stronger, healthier heart.

Get a move on

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week. Split up over seven days, that’s just over 20 minutes of physical activity per day. Aerobic exercise gets your heart rate up, which gets blood moving through blood vessels.

Aerobic activities include jogging, biking, dancing, brisk walking and swimming. Even some forms of yard work count! Riding on a motorized lawn mower does not.

In addition to 150 minutes of aerobic activity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends at least two days of muscle-strengthening activities per week. This doesn’t mean that you have to head straight to the gym to bench press 300 pounds. Using resistance bands or even your own body weight can strengthen your muscles. If you’re starting resistance training for the first time, try using some elastic bands, light weights and your own body’s weight to build a routine of squats, crunches and upper body exercises. Muscle-strengthening exercises can strengthen your bones while helping you to prevent injury.

It’s important that you start slowly. Injuries and overtraining occur when we’re overambitious with our fitness goals. If you struggle to stay active, aim for a 20-minute walk every day. Once that’s done, try upping the time or intensity of the activity.

Getting your body moving doesn’t just build a healthy heart. Physical activity has been shown to help with weight loss, keeping a healthy weight, reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, preventing cognitive decline and more. Don’t worry if you’ve never exercised a day in your life. Start small and keep at it to see the benefits of this healthy lifestyle change.

Eat a healthy diet

Eating healthy foods is one of the surest ways to reduce your risk of heart disease. In 2019, only about 1 in 10 Americans met the recommended standards of fruit and vegetable intake. Try to cut as much processed food out of your diet as you can. A healthy diet is low in added sugars, sodium and saturated fats. This means cutting back on many dairy products, fried food, fatty red meat and salty snacks (look for the low-sodium variety instead).

Some staples of a heart-healthy diet include:
- Fruits
- Vegetables (especially leafy greens)
- Lean proteins (like fish and poultry)
- Whole grains
- Nuts and legumes

Keep in mind that there are healthy forms of fat and cholesterol. Not all fat and cholesterol is bad. Healthy fats can be found in food like olive oil, avocados, dark chocolate and fish (like salmon). Stay away from artificial trans fat–often found in processed baked goods, fried food and margarine. These foods are also high in triglycerides, a type of fat that can cause an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

Similarly, look for food that is high in HDL (good cholesterol). High levels of HDL in the body actually help absorb and flush bad cholesterol (LDL) from the body via the liver. This can reduce overall cholesterol levels. High cholesterol levels can build up in your arteries, causing an increase in blood pressure. HDL cleans cholesterol out of the body, reducing the risk of health problems. Foods that boost HDL in the body include olives, olive oil, fish, nuts and whole grains.

A healthy diet is key to combating obesity and lowering blood sugar. This can help prevent the development of serious health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Keep up healthy habits

There are a number of good habits, aside from those detailed above, that can help you towards better heart health.

If you smoke, cut back and work towards quitting smoking altogether. Smoking causes plaque buildup in the arteries, which significantly increases your risk for cardiovascular disease. In fact, nearly 1 in 4 deaths from cardiovascular disease are caused by smoking. Avoid secondhand smoke as much as you possibly can. Indirectly inhaling cigarette smoke can also seriously affect your heart health. If you’re a smoker, quitting doesn’t just protect your wellness, it protects those around you.

Additionally, avoid excessive alcohol consumption. Despite some studies showing a link between moderate alcohol consumption and reduced risk of heart disease, regular alcohol consumption has largely been shown to lead to heart damage and heart failure. Cutting back on drinking can improve a number of health conditions while reducing your risk of developing heart problems.

It’s also important that you get enough sleep, as recent studies have shown that healthy sleep habits are good for your heart. Cutting back on alcohol and quitting smoking can help–as these both contribute to poor sleep health. 1 in 3 Americans say that they don't get enough sleep. Adults who, on average, get less than six hours of sleep per night have a 20% higher risk of heart attack. Start to turn off your screens and do what you can to settle in at night to ensure that you are going to bed at around the same time every night. This can work wonders for your mental and physical health.

Get regular checkups

Many Americans put off checkups and regular doctor visits. There are a number of reasons for this, but the fact remains that regular checkups with a licensed health care provider play a key role in preventative care. Routine appointments allow you to have your blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride, blood sugar (glucose) and other biochemical levels checked. These tests will detect the risk factors for serious medical conditions before they develop. In addition, checkups allow you to ask your doctor about treatment plans for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and other problems.

We’ve already gone into ways to get the most out of your doctor’s appointment. Use these questions during your regular checkup to stay informed about your health and wellness, and what you can do to prevent serious illness.

The tips above range from small habit adjustments to whole lifestyle changes. The important thing is to start. Begin to add in healthier foods, more mindful habits and increased physical activity to lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of developing serious heart problems. If you have any questions, or need some help getting started, you can book a video primary care visit or video cardiology consult on Sesame to talk to a licensed health care provider from the comfort of your own home.

Telehealth visit

Doctors and specialists on Sesame treat 120+ conditions.

Medical disclaimer

Sesame articles are reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, and qualified health care professionals. To read Sesame’s full medical disclaimer, click here. Sesame’s blog, or any linked materials, are not intended to serve as medical advice, nor is the information a replacement for expert medical advice rendered by a qualified doctor or health care professional.

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