In keeping with Valentine’s Day, February is American Heart Month. What better time of the year to take important steps toward optimizing your cardiovascular wellness? Here are three ways to go about it.

Give Your Cardio Training a Boost

If you want your fitness program to reflect the ideals of American Heart Month, make sure you’re getting enough cardio training. Endurance (aerobic) exercises such as walking, running, cycling, swimming, and dancing can all strengthen the heart and keep blood pressure under control. The American Heart Association recommends that you start slow and gently work your way up to 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise per week. If you’re overweight or suffer from health issues, seek your doctor’s advice first.

Make Heart-Healthy Dietary Changes

Mardi Gras is sometimes treated as an excuse for culinary indulgences, but your heart would prefer a healthier February — especially where red meat is concerned. A Harvard Men’s Health Watch article warns that adding even one daily serving of red meat to your diet can raise your risk of death by 13 percent. Substitute red meat with fish, however, and your risk drops by 7 percent; swap it out with poultry and/or whole grains, and your risk drops by 14 percent. Legumes (including soy products) and nuts are other heart-healthy protein sources.

Dietary modification doesn’t necessarily mean deprivation. For instance, an Australian study found that individuals who consume 100 grams of dark chocolate each day can lower their risks for heart disease, heart attacks and strokes.

Stop Smoking

Smoking is one of the worst things you can do to your cardiovascular system, dramatically increasing your risk for heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure. The National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute warns that even an occasional cigarette can do damage, especially for certain groups, such as women on birth control pills. The good news is that after you quit, these risks drop within as little as one to two years. Find a smoking cessation program and/or ask your primary care physician about medications that might help you quit.

Have a heart this February. For the sake of your loved ones and yourself, honor American Heart Month the healthy way!

Sources:

http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/PhysicalActivity/FitnessBasics/Endurance-Exercise-Aerobic_UCM_464004_Article.jsp#.VrIlGlMrIUV

http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/cutting-red-meat-for-a-longer-life

http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/06/01/dark-chocolate-for-a-healthier-heart/

http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/smo

http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/cessation/quitting/