Not to freak you out or anything, but cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. So in honor of February being Heart Disease Awareness Month, we want to help you put your best heart forward and boost your odds for a long and healthy life.
To do that, here are five scientifically proven ways to improve your heart health:
1. Bring on the chocolate. Chocoholics, rejoice! According to a study from the University of Adelaide in Australia, dark chocolate (sorry, milk chocolate lovers) may reduce blood pressure. That’s because cocoa contains antioxidant compounds called flavanols, which are responsible for the formation of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide causes blood vessel walls to relax and open wider. The result? Lower blood pressure. What’s more, daily consumption of dark chocolate has also been linked to lower incidents of heart attacks and stroke in people at high risk due to metabolic syndrome. Just enjoy a few small pieces to ward off those pesky calories.
2. Ditch the salt. Too much salt can damage blood vessels and increase your risk of developing hypertension (aka high blood pressure). And because the average American consumes more than twice the American Heart Association’s recommended 1,500 milligrams of sodium every day, this is a major heart health concern. If you think the solution is simply nixing the salt shaker on the table, it’s not. More than 75 percent of our sodium consumption comes from processed foods and meals at restaurants. All the more reason to cook at home and eat fresh, whole foods as much as possible.
3. Let’s get physical. Like any muscle in your body, the heart grows stronger with exercise. And if you’re a runner – or thinking about becoming one – here’s one more reason to love this sport: Research shows that running improves cardiovascular fitness by increasing the flexibility of the coronary arteries. This flexibility helps boost blood flow to the heart, reducing the chances of atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries that can lead to a heart attack. But you don’t need to be a kick-butt marathon runner to reap these heart-healthy benefits. The American Heart Association says as little as 30 minutes a day, five times a week, of aerobic exercise – including walking – can reduce your risk of heart disease. (Bonus: It may also whittle your waistline and reduce your odds for other diseases, such as cancer.)