Three Actions You Can Take to Improve Your Heart Health in February

improve your heart health

February tends to be hijacked by two things: bad weather (at least in Chicago) and Valentine’s Day. And whether or not you have a partner to celebrate Valentine’s Day with, there’s at least one heart you can focus on: your own.

February is Heart Health Month across the United States, making it the perfect time to do a quick revamp of your routine and make sure you’re taking care of your heart the best that you can. And since we know health recommendations can get overwhelming quickly (my head is still spinning from whether or not coconut oil is “healthy”), we’ve narrowed our heart health recommendations to three main areas: eating, moving and feeling. Incorporate these three suggestions into your daily routine to take small, manageable steps to improve your heart health.

How you eat: Drop trans fats

You’re in a safe space — it’s okay to admit that you don’t totally remember exactly what trans fats are.

According to the Mayo Clinic, trans fats are typically made from oils through a food processing method called partial hydrogenation. Trans fats can increase that unhealthy LDL cholesterol while decreasing the good HDL cholesterol. Trans fats are similar to saturated fats in that they’re both considered damaging to your cholesterol, but saturated fats are found in foods like red meat and full-fat dairy products, whereas very few trans fats occur naturally in food — they’re mostly processed.

The simplest way I’ve found to cut down on trans fats is to focus more on what I can eat than what I can’t. Build your meals around fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, poultry, chicken or nuts. If you need to double-check a nutritional label for peace of mind, look to see if “trans fats” or “partially hydrogenated oils” are listed. A good rule of thumb is to stick to unprocessed food items — think things that your great-great-grandmother would recognize and be able to cook with (a.k.a, not something called “cookie butter”).

And if you’re still confused, no worries — the FDA’s ban on trans fat in food products should be in full effect by mid-June of 2018, so soon, you won’t even see it listened on nutritional labels at all.

How you move: Five minutes an hour

More and more evidence is popping up to suggest that exercising for 30 minutes a day, five days a week isn’t enough to fight off heart disease. In fact, researchers are arguing that long sedentary periods (that is, sitting at your computer from the time you get into work until lunch or longer) have a huge impact on your heart health. Say it with me now: “sitting is the new smoking.”

It doesn’t have to be Fitbit’s arbitrary 250 steps per hour, but make a point to get up and moving for at least one minute every hour. For me on days when I work from home, that sometimes means going up and down flights in my building’s stairwell, or maybe just a set of 30 air squats. Try it — you might be surprised at how reenergized you feel after just a little bit of movement.

How you manage stress: Find a new zen

We all know the stereotype of the Type A CEO, working 90 hours a week and subsiding on takeout and Red Bull. And while it’s thought that extreme stress like that example can trigger inflammation and thus, heart disease, it’s much more likely that stress impacts your heart in a more behavioral way.

Think about it like this: you’ve had a long day at work, you found a parking ticket on your windshield, and your normally adorable dog managed to destroy a houseplant. What’s your instinct?

Mine, if we’re being honest, is a cold shower beer and a pint of ice cream. Others might turn to smoking, a bottle of red wine, or just Netflixing the weekend away and avoiding responsibilities. But none of those options are great for your heart, right?

Instead, think about taking care of your heart by learning productive ways to de-stress. We’ve all got different ways of unwinding. I like to take walks and plow through my ever-growing podcast to-listen list, light a candle and read or call my dad at the end of a long day. We know high-powered CEOs who go for pool walks, and energetic friends who settle in for a few minutes of meditation when they need a mental reset.

Chances are, you already kind of know what works for you. This month, challenge yourself to explore something a little outside your comfort zone and see if it impacts your mental clarity. Of course, a new workout class always gets a thumbs up from us, but I’m also planning to try candlelit baths at home, alternating hot and cold baths at AIRE and sound baths … really, baths of any kind will work. I’m not picky.

What heart healthy habits will you try in February?

Eat Nutrition

About Kristen Geil

A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Kristen moved to Chicago in 2011 and received her MA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse from DePaul while trying to maintain her southern accent. Kristen grew up playing sports, and since moving to Chicago, she’s fallen in love with the lakefront running path and the lively group fitness scene. Now, as a currently retired marathoner and sweat junkie, you can usually find her trying new workouts around the city and meticulously crafting Instagram-friendly smoothie bowls. Kristen came on to A Sweat Life full-time in 2018 as Editor-in-Chief, and she spends her days managing writers, building content strategy, and fighting for the Oxford comma.