Prioritizing heart health for American Heart Month

Each February, the Be Healthy team observes American Heart Month, raising awareness for heart disease and other heart-related conditions. This observance is particularly significant for our region: According to the CDC, heart disease is the number one cause of death in West Virginia.

At Be Healthy, we work hard to support West Virginians by making healthy choices easier  — especially in the two counties we serve through the CDC’s High Obesity Program (HOP) partnership, Clay and McDowell. Since 2019, we have assisted more than 40  groups and organizations invested in improving the health and wellness in their communities.

No matter the project type or duration, these efforts all work toward a common goal: Increasing access to healthy foods , physical activity opportunities. On a local level, these projects help increase awareness about many common chronic health conditions — including heart disease — and help us work to decrease our risks of developing them. 

Healthy physical activity and dietary habits are two primary factors in maintaining our heart health. That’s why education is such a critical part of our work. Over the years, we have collaborated with food pantries, food banks, schools, and grocery stores to increase access to healthy foods and nutrition education. We have connected project leaders with experts, like WVU Extension nutrition specialists, who have been able to offer customized recipe books, cooking demonstrations, and nutritional guidance to aid participants in adopting and sustaining health-friendly practices. 

Ways we can take care of our tickers

As West Virginians, it’s important for all of us to keep an eye out for one another, and that includes our heart health. This month, we’re highlighting resources from the CDC and American Heart Association regarding heart health awareness, management, and disease prevention. 

1. Know your risks.

Certain factors make us more susceptible to developing heart issues, including age, diet, physical activity, and other comorbidities, but every situation is unique. For example, do you have a family history of heart-related diseases or conditions? Be sure to disclose this to your providers as some heart conditions are hereditary

Curious about your likelihood of developing a heart condition? Check the CDC’s webpage “Am I at risk? Know Your Risk for Heart Diseasefor valuable information about risk assessment and taking the next steps when appropriate. Remember: knowledge is power, even if it makes us uncomfortable. 

2. Find your stressors, find your balance. 

Life is all about balance. Every day, we all juggle a lot: our personal lives, relationships, work, hobbies, families, residences, and more. Although it’s easy to get stressed or experience higher stress during major life adjustments, being stressed for long periods of time can take a significant toll on our moods, sleep habits, and heart health.

According to the CDC, we must identify stressors and, when possible, create boundaries for our own wellness. Think about the things that make you happy, like hobbies, connecting with loved ones, reading, exercising, etc. When you are feeling stressed, lean into those sources of happiness. Gravitate toward the things that make you feel recharged or refreshed physically, socially, and mentally. 

Not every stressor has a solution, but eliminating other frustrations can still make an impact.

3. Show your heart some love through nutrition, physical activity, and check ups.

An investment in our heart health is an investment in our wellbeing. When we opt to eat balanced meals, integrate daily physical activity  into our routines, and manage stress in healthy ways, we can decrease our chances of developing certain heart-related diseases and conditions. Though it can feel overwhelming to try new habits or foods at first, there are plenty of ways we can tailor our diet and exercise to our preferences. 

Exercise: If you’re not into running, give yoga a try or take a walk/bike ride around your neighborhood. If you have limited mobility or time, options like chair yoga are also available. If you’re short on time, combine your tasks using the AHA’s 25 Ways to Get Moving at Home list. What matters is that we keep moving. Exercise and heart-friendly diets have the best results when combined. 

Diet: Healthy diets don’t just affect our weight — they are largely beneficial to our growth, development, immunity, digestion, and overall health. For a more extensive list, see this helpful CDC illustration outlining the importance and Benefits of Eating Healthy for adults and children. 

The AHA website is a wonderful resource for finding heart-friendly foods, label information, and cooking skills. For ideas, check out their recipe archive at AHA: Recipes. In 7 Strategies to Live a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle, the CDC also recommends monitoring beverage choices. Opting for water over soda and drinking alcohol in moderation are two simple ways we can take the healthier route. 

As we make strides to prioritize our heart health, we must also be thorough in our health care management by taking medication as directed, keeping an eye on our vitals (if needed), and attending appointments with our providers.