Karen McKenny, RN, is a nurse educator at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Karen McKenny, RN, is a nurse educator at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

Happy Heart Day! With Valentine’s Day, Go Red For Women, and National Heart Month all happening in February, hearts are front and center.

Here are 14 ways you can love your heart this month – and every month. You will see that there are tried and true ways – and new ways – of nurturing your heart. Heart health is not just about the biological, it is also about the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual.

14. Reach for dark chocolate. Yes, there are some kinds of chocolate that are heart healthy! Go for dark chocolate with cocoa content of 65 percent or higher to reap the benefits of flavanols! In addition to having antioxidant qualities, research shows they may influence vascular health by lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot.

13. Speaking of chocolate, eat heart healthy, too! A healthy diet includes foods low in saturated and trans fat, cholesterol, sodium (less than 1,500 mg a day) and added sugars, and foods high in whole grain fiber, lean protein, fish (at least 2 servings per week) and a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables (4-5 cups a day). Eat up!

12. Know your numbers, know your risk level. Keep an eye on your blood pressure, your cholesterol and your blood glucose. High blood pressure is a significant risk factor for heart disease. A high level of cholesterol leads to the waxy buildup in our arteries that form plaques and can lead to heart disease and stroke. Over time, high levels of blood glucose can damage your blood vessels, kidneys, eyes, and nerves.

11. Move more! Make a commitment to move more – whatever that looks like for you. Park a farther away, take the stairs, or walk. The American Heart Association offers this advice: Walking is the single most effective form of exercise for heart health and as few as 30 minutes a day provides heart health benefits.

10. Maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight puts additional strain on the workload of the heart, your arteries, and lungs, and it increases your blood pressure. Losing as little as 5 or 10 pounds may have a dramatic effect on lowering your blood pressure.

9. Don’t smoke, or if you do..quit, Smoking leads to increased risks of heart disease, and blood clots and it lowers your lung capacity. Do it one day at a time, one hour at a time. If you slip, you haven’t failed. Instead take the opportunity to notice what triggered you and make a different choice next time.

8. Learn CPR. Save someone else’s heart! The new Hands Only CPR is easy to learn. Sign up for a class near you with your spouse, your teenager, or your friends. Heart.org has great information and a fun YouTube video that shows how easy it is. CPR can more than double a person’ chances of survival.

7. Know the signs of a heart attack. Chest pain from a heart attack can be the classic pain in the center of the chest, but may also be a feeling of pressure, squeezing, or fullness. It may be pain or discomfort in your arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach. The pain may last a few minutes or come and go. Some people have symptoms other than pain that include shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness, breaking out in a cold sweat or unexplained fatigue. Pay attention to your body and get help if you need it.

6. Try mindfulness and meditation. Numerous studies support the stress reduction benefits of practicing mindfulness and meditation. For example, yoga decreases the incidence of atrial fibrillation. Take time each day to sit quietly and just breathe. Focus on the breath moving in and out of your body; let your thoughts and feelings flow through you without judgment. These few minutes of self-focus and breathing have been shown to lower your blood pressure, and reduce tension throughout your circulatory system.

5. Practice gratitude – it’s good for your heart! Research conducted at the Harvard School of Medicine shows a connection between gratitude and good health. Start a gratitude journal where you set aside sometime each day or week to list three to five things you are grateful for. Pay attention to the good things in your life. Or, change your self-talk. Most of us are unaware of the negative thoughts our mind focus on each day. Reframe negative thoughts to find a more positive way to look at a situation.

4. Engage in random acts of kindness. Being kind to others has been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease anxiety, increase energy, and increase overall well-being for you and for the recipient! It can be as simple as holding a door open for someone, letting someone into traffic during rush hour, buying the coffee for the person behind you in line, or volunteering. Reach out to others and the health benefits will follow.

3. Smile! Studies show benefits for both the giver and receiver of the smile. Seeing someone smile lifts our mood and puts us in a positive frame of mind. Many have theorized that smiling triggers a ripple effect of smiles, from one recipient to the next. Mother Theresa once said: “We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”

2. Laugh. Research suggests that laughter may decrease stress hormones, reduce artery inflammation, and increase the “good” HDL cholesterol. Humor has also been shown to strengthen your immune system, boost your energy, diminish pain, protect you from the damaging effects of stress, improve the function of blood vessels, and increases blood flow both of which can protect you from heart attack and other cardiovascular problems. Truly, it is the best medicine.

1. LOVE!  Did you know that along with a healthy diet and exercise, feelings of love can also affect your health? Feelings of love are an antidote to stress. Love can help you heal faster from a disease and help with physical and mental pain. One study found that writing a love letter can actually reduce cholesterol for both the writer and the recipient! Hugging increases the production of oxytocin and increases your heart rate and blood flow to your whole body. All kinds of love work this way, romantic, friendship, family, pets…it’s all the same way in the ways in which it benefits both your health and the health of the ones you love.

So, share some love today and know it is leading to a healthier you!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Karen McKenny, RN, is a nurse educator at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

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