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By Alyssa Morgenstern and Dr. Tanya Benenson

When you think about heart disease, do images of overweight middle-aged men scarfing down grease-filled burgers come to mind? Well, that image can actually be of anyone, including women.

We know heart disease is a problem; what we don’t realize is that it’s the number one killer for women, causing one out of every three deaths – more than all cancers combined. Here’s another scary fact from the American Heart Association (AHA)—approximately one woman dies from heart disease every minute. Yup, that’s every 60 seconds.

The good news is we know a lot about preventing heart disease. In honor of Heart Health Month, here are the key things you can do to keep your heart healthy.

1. Know your numbers:

You can’t feel a lot of the things that contribute to heart disease. So what should you do? Schedule a regular check-up, which includes a biometric screening. This is a fasting blood test (no food or drink besides water for at least eight hours), blood pressure check and weight analysis that help identify if you are at risk. Even if you’re otherwise healthy and don’t have a family history of heart disease, this is an important step for prevention. Here’s what you need to check:

Cholesterol

High cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease – and stroke for that matter. While fam­ily history and genetics play a role, the foods you eat have a large impact on your cholesterol. When you have your fasting cholesterol checked, you’ll generally see results for total cholesterol and the different types of cholesterol - LDL, HDL and triglyc­erides. LDL and triglycerides, when too high, increase your risk.

Goal: Your ideal numbers depend on your overall risk, so discuss these results with your doctor.

Here are AHA diet tips to lower cholesterol.

Blood pressure

About one in three Americans have high blood pressure, but many don’t realize it because the symptoms tend to be silent. When blood pressure is too high, it damages your blood vessels, and your heart does a lot of pumping without any rest, which can cause heart conditions like arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm), heart attack and stroke.

Goal: Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80. Anything over 130/80 is diagnosed as high blood pressure, a lower number than before.

Learn more what you can do about high blood pressure here and here.

Blood sugar

Normally our bodies break down the food we eat into sugar and we are able to regulate the sugar level. But with diabetes, too much sugar stays in your bloodstream, which causes health issues over time and increases your risk for heart disease by two-to-four times. The earlier you catch the problem, the less damage is caused. A common form of diabetes, Type 2 diabetes, can go on for years unnoticed, so it is crucial to have your blood sugar checked.

Goal: Normal fasting glucose is less than 100.

Key factors that increase your risk for diabetes include obesity, lack of physical activity and eating refined sugars. Learn more about dietary sugar here.

Body Mass Index (BMI)

BMI measures your weight in relation to your height. If you have a high BMI, especially if the fat is at your waist, you’re at greater risk for heart disease. Sometimes, even losing five to ten pounds can help make your heart healthier.

Goal: Your goal BMI should be less than 25. If your BMI is 25 or greater, then your waist circumference should be less than 35 inches for women (less than 40 inches for men).

Calculate your BMI here. Find tips on weight loss here.

Dr. Tanya Benenson is the Chief Medical Officer at Comcast NBCUniversal.
Dr. Tanya Benenson is the Chief Medical Officer at Comcast NBCUniversal.Virginia Sherwood

2. Get moving

Try moving for 30 minutes a day, five times a week to keep your weight down and your heart in shape. It doesn’t need to be all at one time! Ten minutes at a time works! And it doesn’t have to be a flashy spin classes or Spartan races – just take a faster-paced walk around your neighborhood, the house or even your office. Walking meetings are a great way to fit in exercise and release your creativity by literally getting outside of the box that is your office. If you have kids, try doing something active with them as they’re supposed to have 60 minutes of exercise every day. Two birds, one stone, as they say.

3. Be a strategic eater and drinker

Healthy foods fuel and energize us. You don’t have to be a perfect eater, but here are some good ways to incorporate more healthy foods into your diet, and get the less healthy foods out.

Tweak your eating habits

-Buy healthier foods that you actually like so you’re more likely to eat them.

-Control your portions by switching to smaller plates and utensils.

-Keep healthier snacks at work and at home so they’re easy to grab.

Watch what you’re eating and drinking

-Veggies: Aim to have half of your plate filled with vegetables at every meal. Mix veggies in sauces, with fiber-rich carbs like brown rice and farro, as well as soups and smoothies to pack your diet with lower calorie, high-nutrient foods.

-Salt: You only need one teaspoon of salt every day (2400 mg). Decrease your salt intake by reading labels, cutting down on high salt condiments and limiting processed foods that often come in packages and cans.

-Sugar: Decrease your added sugar by reading labels for hidden sugar and cutting down on high sugar condiments, processed foods and sugary drinks. Limit dessert but if you’re really craving something sweet, try pairing a small piece of dessert with a fruit.

-Fat:Eat less trans fat and saturated fat from animal products like fatty red meat, poultry skin, butter/ stick margarine, fried foods, processed baked desserts and basically anything that says “saturated”, “trans-fat” or “partially hydrogenated oils.” Focus on healthier fats by eating fatty fishes like salmon, mackerel and albacore tuna, plant fats like avocado, flax seeds and olive oil, and nuts like walnuts and almonds. These are high in calories, so have smaller portions.

-Alcohol: If you want your glass of (insert your alcoholic drink of choice), limit yourself to 1 drink per day.

4. Stop smoking

We know, we know. You have to be ready. But we have to tell you, bottom line—smoking is terrible for your heart. It damages your entire blood vessel system and increases your risk for heart disease, stroke, aneurysms and blood clots. Smoking also reduces your lung capacity, which makes it harder to breathe when you’re exercising. Don’t wait for something serious to happen to get you to quit. Quitting would be the number one thing you can do to for your health right now.

Check with your health plan to see if you have access to a Quit Smoking program at work. If you don’t have one, look at these resources.

5. Tame Your Stress

Stress tends to make us act in less heart healthy ways – whether that’s moving less, eating more unhealthy foods, or smoking. It can also increase our blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

There are a lot of different ways to manage your stress. Meditation, breathing exercises, exercise in general (remember those 10 minute walks we mentioned above?), talking to a friend, reading a good book, or even seeing a licensed therapist or counselor are just some options, so pick what works best for you.

As women, we have a tendency to take care of everyone else before we take care of ourselves. This month, give your heart, and yourself, a little love.

More Resources

Visit Go Red For Women Heart Disease Prevention Tips

Dr. Tanya Benenson is the Chief Medical Officer at Comcast NBCUniversal. Dr. Tanya leads a team responsible for transforming the way leading employers cultivate a culture of wellbeing – shifting from traditional healthcare to better health management. Dr. Tanya’s team manages the strategic development of clinical programs, wellness initiatives and health engagement to support over a quarter of a million employees and their families.

Alyssa Morgenstern creates, manages and communicates global health and wellness programs for Comcast NBCUniversal to help hundreds of thousands lead healthier lives. She is also a certified yoga instructor specializing in how to recharge at the office.