February is American Heart Month. We see many messages in the media for heart health awareness throughout February. There is good reason for this. Heart disease is the number one cause of death for both men and women in the United States and in Carroll County as well.

Unfortunately, many of those who died from heart disease could have led healthier lives and lived longer if they had taken steps to prevent or control their illnesses.

The term "heart disease" refers to several types of heart conditions. The most common is coronary heart disease, which occurs when a substance called plaque builds up in the walls of arteries that supply blood to the heart. As plaque builds up, the arteries narrow, making it more difficult for blood to flow and nourish the heart with oxygen. This buildup of plaque increases the risk for heart attacks and strokes. Other types of heart disease include heart failure, irregular heart rhythms and heart valve problems. Heart disease can also lead to disabilities, preventing people from enjoying time with their families and leading a productive life.

The good news is that heart disease can be prevented or controlled by eating a healthy diet, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol use and not using tobacco products. Making major lifestyle changes may seem overwhelming, so start with small steps ... literally. A good way to begin your journey to improve your heart's health is adding steps throughout the day and sitting less.

Sitting for long periods of time increases the risk for heart disease and other chronic illnesses. The longer you spend sitting each day, the more likely you will develop a chronic illness. To offset the effects of sitting, stand up and move or simply stand up. Pace while talking on the phone. When you are reading emails or texts, stand up. Put down the remote and walk over to the TV to change the channel. Stand up and stretch or walk in place while watching TV. Better yet, watch TV from a treadmill or exercise bike. Even doing tasks at home, like washing dishes by hand and standing to fold laundry, helps. At work, take a walk at lunch. Instead of calling or sending an email to a co-worker to ask a question, walk over and ask them in person.

Moving more and sitting less will inspire you to make other healthy lifestyle changes as well. Take small steps toward eating a healthier diet. Limit salt and sodium in your diet. Common foods that contain large amounts of sodium include canned soups, cheese, bread and rolls, cold cuts and snack foods. Eat more servings of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables in a day. Add a serving of baked or broiled fish to your weekly menus. Limit your servings of red meat and foods with saturated fat.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, regular physical activity is a must for having a healthy heart. The Surgeon General recommends adults get moderate-intensity exercise for 150 minutes each week. Take the talk test to determine exercise intensity. If you are doing moderate-intensity activity, you can talk, but not sing, during the activity. Aim for exercising 30 minutes a day five days a week. Work your way up to this. Try breaking up your daily workout into 10-minute segments throughout your day. Walking is an excellent way to begin getting physical activity. Take a friend or family member with you to try the talk test.

There are many other ways to improve your heart health, but starting with these small changes can get you stepping in the right direction.

You do not have to make changes all at once. Each step brings you closer to a healthier heart.