February is American Heart Month – an ideal time to remind Americans to focus on their heart health and encourage them to get their families, friends and communities involved. It’s a time to pay even more attention to lifestyle choices and how they could impact overall heart health. Chances are good that we all know someone affected by heart disease or stroke. About 2,300 Americans die of cardiovascular disease each day, an average of 1 death every 38 seconds. The good news is that through lifestyle and dietary changes, many at risk people can improve heart health and enjoy a longer and healthier life.

Here are 7 steps to get you on the road to better heart health this year:

1. Reach Healthy Numbers
High cholesterol and blood pressure are directly linked to heart health.  If your total cholesterol level is over 200, HDL cholesterol level is under 40, and your LDL cholesterol level is over 160, you’re at risk of heart disease.  It’s important to know your blood pressure numbers, too. More than 50 million people in the U.S. have high blood pressure. Healthy blood pressure in adults is a reading below 120 systolic and 80 diastolic. Blood pressure between 120 to 129 systolic and under 80 diastolic is considered elevated.

2. Commit to Exercise
People who don’t exercise are more likely to get heart disease. Each day should include some form of physical activity. Staying active is crucial for heart health, especially for many Americans who have sedentary jobs.  Exercise has many benefits, including strengthening your heart and improving your circulation. It can also help you maintain a healthy weight and lower cholesterol and blood pressure – lowering your risk of heart disease.

3. Manage Stress
Stress is certainly a normal part of life.  But when it becomes a chronic issue, it can lead to high blood pressure, which can trigger a heart attack.  There are beneficial ways to cope with stress from meditating to exercising to even soaking in a bath.

4. Eat Wisely
The foods we eat can decrease our risk of heart disease and stroke. Choose foods low in saturated fat and sodium. Plan a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, fish, nuts and legumes.  Limit sugar-sweetened beverages and red meat. Stay away from hydrogenated and processed foods as well.  If you choose to eat meat, select the leanest cuts available.

5. Don’t Smoke
Smoking damages the lining of your arteries, leading to a build-up of fatty material (atheroma) which narrows the artery. This can cause a heart attack or a stroke. Even exposure to secondhand smoke poses a serious health hazard.

6. Limit Alcohol
Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure and increases chances of heart disease and stroke. It can contribute to high triglycerides and produce irregular heartbeats. If you drink, limit your alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women.

7. Know the Warning Signs
If something went wrong with your heart, would you know it?  Not all heart problems come with clear warning signs. According to the American Heart Association, some of the warning signs include pressure, tightness, pain, or a squeezing or aching sensation in your chest or arms that may spread to your neck, jaw or back. Other signs include, nausea, indigestion, heartburn, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, cold sweat, fatigue, and dizziness. Some people wait too long because they don’t recognize the signs and symptoms. It’s important to act immediately and seek help by calling 911 or seek immediate medical attention.

Being heart-healthy requires making lifestyle and dietary changes. Fortunately, making any improvements to your overall wellness can go a long way towards keeping heart disease at bay.

American Heart Association