Taking Steps to a Healthy Heart

By: Beth O’Keefe MPH, BSN, RN, CCM; RN Care Coordinator, VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans



What does February bring to mind for you? For some of us, it’s Valentine’s Day or the long President’s Day weekend. For others, February is winter’s zenith month, and we are already thinking about spring. February is also designated “American Heart Month,” and it’s a great opportunity to focus on healthy heart habits.

As a Registered Nurse Care Coordinator for VNSNY CHOICE Health Plans serving upstate and western NY, I have many members who are diagnosed with heart disease. The main ways that I work to help them manage their disease conditions include: medication, diet and fluid management; and regular medical follow-ups. In no way should the importance of these management modalities be minimized for people already diagnosed with heart disease – however what about people who do not have diagnosed heart disease?

Why is addressing heart health, and the prevention of heart disease, so important? According to statistics from the American Heart Association, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and the leading cause of death of women in the United States.

One risk factor for heart disease is inherited familial history – this risk factor cannot be changed. There are, however, risk factors that are within our power to control, including: high blood pressure; obesity; high cholesterol; smoking and lack of exercise.

Heart Disease is so dangerous because it can develop insidiously – in many cases without warning signs until there is a sudden major cardiac event such as a stroke, heart attack, or cardiac arrest. Some people may have symptoms such as shortness of breath and chest pain with exertion, but attribute them to smoking or being overweight – not realizing that they have heart disease.

My challenge to you this February is to show yourself and those you care about some extra love by learning about and developing heart healthy behaviors. Every heart healthy lifestyle change that is made improves the odds of avoiding heart disease or of minimizing its impact on your own life, or the life of someone you care about.

The following heart healthy lifestyle changes should help you get started:

  • To help manage your salt intake – read food labels. A regular sodium diet has 4g of sodium while a low sodium diet has 2g. When you read food labels, look for the amount of sodium per serving, and what constitutes a serving – for example if a can of soup has 800mg of sodium per serving, it is important to know that if the can has 2 servings and you consume the entire can, you have had 1600mg (1.6g) of sodium – over half of the total daily amount allowed on a low sodium diet.
  • Foods labeled “low-sodium” are not always low sodium – read labels!
  • Remove the salt shaker from your table, don’t cook with salt and try using alternative spices to season your food.
  • Add more walking into your daily routine by parking farther away from your destination or getting off the bus or subway at an earlier stop.
  • Get up a half hour earlier to walk or build a walk into your lunch break or early evening routine. Work toward a goal of walking 5-6 days a week for 30 minutes each time.
  • If you can stop smoking altogether – stop. If you cannot stop completely, then decrease how many cigarettes you smoke daily, trying to decrease by at least half. If you need medical assistance or the support of a smoking cessation group then seek them out. Talk to your health care provider if you need assistance.

Before February comes to a close, what heart healthy habits will you begin? Remember – while speaking to our health care provider in advance is a good idea for any of us; if you do have any health conditions, it is very important to speak with your health care provider before beginning any dietary changes, or starting an exercise, weight loss or smoking cessation program.