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How to get heart healthy this February

What was your New Year's resolution? If you're like many Americans, you may have set a goal to lose weight or become more healthy. With the arrival of February, the idea of adopting a healthy lifestyle comes into focus even more clearly.

February is National Heart Month. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 600,000 Americans die of heart disease every year, making it the leading killer of both men and women. The numbers may be frightening, but experts say there are steps we all can take to minimize our risk of developing heart disease.

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Be proactive.

Many people may believe they don't have to worry about heart disease until they reach middle age, but director of Baltimore County Health and Human Services Dr. Gregory Branch said people of all ages should make heart health a priority.

"Anyone over the age of 55 is at increased risk for heaving heart disease, but it's never too soon to start to take care of your heart and be heart conscious," he said.

The first step to becoming heart healthy, experts say, is to determine what your risk factors are.

"It's always smart to be proactive rather than to be a fatalist and let whatever happens, happen," said Dr. Jeff Quartner, chief of cardiology at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital and MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital and associate medical director of the MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute. "As we start this discussion, heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans, so how do you prevent that? By being proactive. And to be proactive you have to know what your risks are."

Those risk factors, Quartner said, include high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, cigarette smoking and genetics. Experts say the best way to learn what your individual risk factors are is by visiting your physician.

"I think [people's] first step would be you should talk to your primary care doctor to see what [your] heart health is and go from there," Branch said.

Make a plan

"Going from there," in this case, means making a plan to figure out what your specific needs are and how they can best be addressed.

One extremely important tool in the fight against heart disease is adopting a consistent exercise regimen.

"Everyone knows that if you exercise it plays a major role in reducing major components that cause heart disease like obesity," said Monte Sanders, president and CEO of Sanders Optimum Fitness and spokesperson for the American Heart Association.

For many, busy schedules preclude workout sessions in the gym. But Sanders said exercise doesn't have to be done at a gym, and it certainly doesn't have to be tedious.

"First of all, it's about prioritizing," he said. "I believe your health is your wealth. I believe that the true enemy to anyone's destiny is bad health. So the most important thing, I believe, is making time to exercise. The key is it can be exercise and activity that you enjoy, that you can do at home, exercises and movement that you don't have to go to the gym … there are certain things you can do as a family, you can do together that can be beneficial."

Sanders said proper nutrition and exercise "pretty much go hand in hand."

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"People [should] think about the things that they're eating, and certain fruits and vegetables that are heart healthy," he said. "That comes down to the fruits and the vegetables and drinking a lot of water and the good proteins; so again, more than just the physical activity but the nutrition plays a role in it as well. And if you eat right there are certain foods you can eat that will help you prevent certain diseases."

However, being overweight isn't the only contributing factor to heart disease.

"Well everybody needs to worry about heart health regardless of what your weight is," Quartner said. "That's not the only risk factor ... Anybody who has premature heart disease in a first-degree relative before the ages of 50 or 55 has to be especially concerned about taking care of those other risk factors that we can modify. So that means people that have high blood pressure, diabetes, smoke cigarettes, have cholesterol issues, maybe overweight, etc. — those things need to be aggressively approached."

Quartner said cigarette smoking puts people at a much greater risk for heart disease.

"By far and away the most significant thing is if you smoke cigarettes, stop," he said. "Because cigarettes cause much more in the way of vascular disease than any lung issue combined."

Despite the daunting list of risk factors, experts say most can be addressed.

"The only factor we can't do anything about is our genetics — who our parents are," Quartner said.

Follow through

At the end of the day, experts say people should make — and be consistent with — a wellness plan. And most importantly, they should take the risk of heart disease seriously.

"My advice would be: Don't wait until it happens to you," Sanders said. "Don't take life for granted … it may not happen to them; it may happen to someone at work; it may happen to someone in their family; and a lot of times, unfortunately, that's what takes for people to get going."

For Sanders, being proactive also means watching out for the next generation by promoting — and including children in — healthy activities.

"A lot of people have kids and families and I think its important to not just wait for something bad to happen to us and have the doctor tell us, 'Hey, you have to eat right and exercise,' but to have a preventive lifestyle, meaning that making a habit of really exercising at least 60 minutes a day," he said. "Even if you have children, I think they should be playing and having fun so that they're moving for 60 minutes a day.

"When a kid sees their parents working out … that's what they'll emulate and that's one of the best gifts that they can give their kids — the gift of seeing them exercise," Sanders said.

For Quartner, advice about heart health comes down to three simple points:

"Know that heart disease is the No. 1 killer, make a plan of approach for you that's based on your own individual risk factors and be proactive."

Reach Times Staff Reporter Elaina Clarke at 410-857-3316 or via email at elaina.clarke@communitytimes.com.

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