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American Heart Month
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American Heart Month

Making healthy diet and exercise choices are two keys to preventing heart disease.

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Finding creative but tasteful ways to add vibrantly colored fruit and vegetables to one’s diet can help prevent heart disease.

Each time the doorbell rang, a guest arrived, wearing red and bringing with her a new flavorful dish with an aroma that filled the already pungent air in Cassandra Pope’s Arlington home. One by one friends strolled through the living room and into the kitchen bearing dishes like balsamic-grilled chicken breast, curried cauliflower steak and freshly made hummus. They had arrived for a potluck dinner and the theme that evening was heart health.

“My father died of a heart attack when he was 62, and when he was 57 he had a stroke,” said Pope. “All nine of his siblings had massive heart attacks and all of them died of a heart-related illness. So I know that I need to focus, eating better and exercising and losing weight. My friends always get together for dinner about once or twice a month and usually we have a theme. For February, we decided to combine Valentine’s Day and heart health. We exchanged recipes so that we all have a stash of new recipes to try.“

Cardiovascular disease remains one of the leading cause of death in the United States, and after decades of a steady decline in this country, it is once again on the rise, according to a study by the American Heart Association. The research also shows that approximately 80 percent of all cardiovascular disease can be prevented by adopting a healthy lifestyle and controlling high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. During February, American Heart Month, health care professionals are working to raise awareness of the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices and managing their health conditions.

“February is … also Black History Month and these two recognitions go hand-in-hand,” said Nikkia Wilkens, Fairfax County Health Department community outreach professional. “African Americans have some of the highest rates of hypertension and heart disease, [but] with the right steps, we can improve our heart health.”

Some of the heart-smart lifestyle adjustments that Wilkens and other health care professionals advise include staying active and exercising regularly and monitoring one’s salt intake. “Incorporate movement into your everyday activities, such as taking the stairs instead of an elevator,” said Wilkens. “Maintain a healthy diet and skip the fried foods, and eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Commit to eight hours [of sleep] a night and drink eight glasses of water each day.”

While African-American have one of the highest rates of heart disease, the American Heart Association reports that anyone at any age can be affected by cardiovascular diseases and 80 percent of cardiac events can be prevented.

“Even making small changes like getting 30 minutes of exercise a day can improve not just your heart health, but your overall health as well,” said fitness trainer Brendan Moore. “Find a type of exercise that you enjoy enough to do for 30 minutes that also gets you to break a sweat and do it everyday. The important thing is that you get your heart rate up. If you start to break a sweat, you know that you’re exerting enough energy to have an impact.”

Small dietary changes can be made gradually. “Watching your salt intake is really important,” said dietician Caroline Knowles. “There are so many ways to prepare meals by using spices instead of salt so that you don’t compromise the taste. With slow cookers and instant cookers, there are so many options that you no longer have to fry food to enjoy that satisfying taste.”