By Kelli Mitchuson, Health Innovation Specialist

Heart Health Month is not about losing weight, but about gaining your life back. According to the American Heart Association, 92.1 million adults in the US are living with a form of heart disease or effects from this condition, and about 801,000 Americans died of heart disease in 2017. That is 1 in every 3 deaths, making heart disease the leading cause of death in the United States. While these numbers seem overwhelming, we can overcome these statistics with awareness, knowledge, and a little help from the YMCA.

Many of you may be wondering if you are at risk for heart disease. You can assess your risk by answering these simple questions:

  • Are you a man over the age of 45 or a woman over the age of 55?
  • Do you have a family history of heart disease or diabetes?
  • Do you have type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol?
  • Do you smoke?
  • Are you overweight?
  • Do you perform moderate exercise less than three times a week? 

If you have answered yes to three or more of these questions, you may be at risk for heart disease. Risk factors include being physically inactive, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and blood pressure, smoking, and carrying excess weight. The most accurate and safe way to verify that you are at risk is to consult your doctor.

According to the American Heart Association, “While many may assume that popping a few pills that your healthcare provider prescribed is enough to quell symptoms or prevent a heart attack, the real preventative power lies with real changes to your lifestyle—which can reduce the risk for heart disease by as much as 80 percent.”

So what specific actions can you take to help reduce your risk and keep your heart healthy? Start today with these 5 things.

1. Increase Your Activity

Performing moderate exercise for 150 minutes (2.5 hours) per week—like walking, biking, or gardening, can increase your life span and quality of life overall. Think of it as investing about 30 minutes of your day into physical activity that can help you not only decrease your weight, but also increase your heart health.

2. Change Your Diet

By changing to a more heart healthy diet and dropping some excess pounds, you can lower your risk of developing heart disease. Simple changes like adding more fruits and vegetables in your diet, switching out meat twice a week for fish, cutting down your sugar intake, and eating more fiber-rich, whole grain foods will make a big difference. For heart healthy recipes, head over to the American Heart Association.

3. Lower Your Blood Pressure and Cholesterol 

Even if your weight is on target, you may still have high blood pressure and cholesterol. Reducing sodium in your diet; adding fish, produce, and nuts; and replacing your grains with whole and multi-grains can help reduce your numbers. The YMCA of Middle Tennessee's new Blood Pressure Self-Monitoring program, launching this spring, will offer personalized support as participants develop the habit of monitoring their blood pressure.

4. Get Good Sleep

It might sound too simple, but millions of Americans don’t get the recommended 6-8 hours of sleep each night. Lack of sleep can be tough on your heart! The best way to get a good night's sleep is to increase your physical activity during the day, limit the amount of caffeine you have, and establish a specific time you go to bed each night.

5. Quit Smoking

Smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to develop heart disease. It can cause the liner walls of your heart to become weaker and can make your heart work harder. If you've tried to quit before and failed, try again! Quitting smoking lowers your risk for smoking-related diseases and can add years to your life. You're worth it.