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7 Ways to Love Your Heart

1. Know Your Blood Pressure Number

With every heartbeat, blood is pumped into your arteries and carried throughout your body. Blood pressure (BP) is expressed as a fraction such as 120/80 (“120 over 80”). Systolic blood pressure (the higher number) measures the force of the blood pushing against your artery walls while your heart is beating. Diastolic pressure is the pressure when your heart is resting between beats. BP can rise when you’re tense, excited or active. But when it stays consistently high, your heart has to work harder and your risk of heart disease increases. So what’s “high”? Numbers under 120/80 are desirable. Readings between 120/80 and 139/89 are considered “pre-hypertension”, while high blood pressure is defined as anything above 140/90. The numbers themselves don’t tell the whole story, though, so your doctor will want to evaluate your overall health and family history.

2. Exercise Regularly

You know exercise can slim you down and boost your mood. But aerobic workouts also strengthen your cardiovascular system by conditioning your heart work more efficiently—not just while you’re exercising but also when you’re at rest. The American Heart Association recommends getting 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic activity most days of the week at 50%-85% of your maximum heart rate.

3. Stub out that cigarette

Smoking damages arteries to your heart and brain, increases blood pressure, and can lower your levels of HDL, the “good” cholesterol. You’ve heard it before, but if you smoke, quit—and try to reduce your exposure to secondhand smoke whenever possible. Smoking produces free radicals, “rogue” molecules that can cause extensive cell damage if they aren’t neutralized.

4. Know Your Cholesterol Level

There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) known as “bad” cholesterol (think “L” for “Lousy!”) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the “good” one (remember “H” for “Healthy”). When too much LDL builds up in the artery walls it can form a hard coating—known as plaque—which can eventually slow or block the flow of blood to your heart. HDL is believed to remove excess cholesterol from plaque, slowing this buildup. Ideally, your total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL but what’s more important is the relationship between LDL and HDL. LDL levels should be below 100, and optimal levels of HDL are above 60.

5. Learn Your Family History

While lots of factors are within your control, your family history may make you more susceptible to certain health risks. High cholesterol, for instance, can be inherited. If you have close relatives who have had heart problems make sure to tell your doctor. And note that, for many women, cholesterol levels often rise after menopause.

6. Maintain a Healthy Weight

One of the best, and simplest, ways to love your heart is to like that number on the scale. Being overweight can increase your total cholesterol and increase your risk for heart disease. Don’t psych yourself out by focusing on a dramatic change; small victories today can make a big difference in the long run. Eat more fresh food, since processed foods often contain higher levels of trans fats and salt. And weigh yourself every morning when you’re the lightest. You’ll feel motivated every time you see improvement, and if the number’s a little higher make this the day to skip the brownies or ice cream.

7. Eat Lots of Fruits and Veggies

Add some color to your life! Studies have shown that diets rich in antioxidant-containing foods such as fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Antioxidants break the chain reactions caused by free radicals before they have a chance to damage cell membranes. Although your body has enzyme systems to scavenge free radicals, there are certain antioxidants—such as Vitamin E, Vitamin C and beta-carotene—that we don’t produce naturally and have to get from other sources. Green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts, papaya, sweet potatoes and watercress are loaded with Vitamin E. Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, lemons), strawberries and broccoli are some delicious ways to get your “C”, while beta-carotene gives dark orange vegetables like carrots their intense color. Aim for 5 to 10 servings of fruits and veggies every day.

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