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Make Heart Health a Habit

By Gayle Mensch

Replace bad habits with good ones for long-lasting results

February is Heart Healthy Month. Unless you live on your own private island, you can’t miss the hoopla. From “Go Red for Women” Day on Feb. 3 focusing on women’s heart health to National Wear Red Day on Feb. 6 to National Heart Week — usually observed the week of Valentine’s Day — there will be bright red hearts, red clothing, heart walks, healthy recipes, free blood pressure checks and other observances everywhere you look.

There’s a reason for all this. Heart Healthy Month was established to help people become more aware of the signs of coronary artery disease, America’s No. 1 killer. Men and women are at equal risk for developing heart disease; the symptoms are just more easily recognizable in men. According to the Centers for Disease Control, someone has a coronary event about every 25 seconds. The CDC also states that nine out of 10 heart disease patients have at least one of the following risk factors: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, cigarette smoking, overweight or obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity and alcohol use.

Most of us know that our biggest and best weapon against heart disease is a healthy diet and routine exercise. But, also for most of us, what we know and what we do are two entirely different things. Rani Whitfield, M.D., a Baton Rouge family practitioner and American Heart Association volunteer, suggests that the most successful way to get rid of a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. “Learning to form healthy habits by replacing bad ones results in an all-around better quality of life and, ultimately, a healthier you,” he says.

That is easier said than done, of course, but Whitfield offers some simple tips that can help you tackle even the most indulgent and hardest-to-kick habits. “An unhealthy habit is easy to develop and hard to live with; a healthy habit is harder to develop but easier to live with.”

Regardless of your age, Whitfield says you can benefit from these simple habit-changing tips.

First, recognize that it takes 60 to 90 days to create a new habit. You have to keep after it. It helps to remember that an unhealthy habit is attractive because it gives instant gratification. But you pay later. On the other hand, a healthy habit means you put off gratification but get a much bigger payoff down the road.

Think of your task as replacement rather than deprivation. It’s important to find your real motivation. Are you doing it for yourself, for your children, to set a good example, or do you simply want to live to see your kids graduate? Focus on your reasons for getting healthy and keep that goal in the front of your mind.


Here are some tips to make the change easier:

Break a big goal into smaller short-term goals. “Don’t go cold turkey,” Whitfield says. “Suppose you’re drinking five beers a day, and you want to get down to six a month. First, reduce to three a day. You’ll see the benefits and feel more motivated to move toward your longer-term goal.”

Tell someone you trust — not someone who will sabotage you. Be accountable to someone all the time. It’s toughest forming a healthy habit if you don’t have support. For example, one spouse might be trying to stop smoking while the other one isn’t. “You have to find some inner strength, some self-motivation and push through it. Or get counseling, in a safe setting, to help deal with a lack of support.”

Allow yourself to cheat once in a while. If you’ve avoided sweets all week and you’ve been exercising, you can afford that one small piece of your mom’s apple pie. Or let yourself have one “crazy meal” a week.

Break the TV habit in favor of exercise. If you just “have” to watch a certain show, Tivo it and then watch it as a reward to yourself after you do your exercises.

Eat a healthy diet. This means a diet low in fat, cholesterol and sodium and high in fiber, fruits and vegetables. Fat intake should be no more than 30 percent of total daily calories. Most sodium (salt) comes in prepared or fast foods. Read the labels! Keep cholesterol intake at less than 300 milligrams a day. Fiber-rich foods can help lower cholesterol. Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants such as beta-carotene, and vitamins A and C.

Watch alcohol consumption. Heavy drinking may increase the risk for high blood pressure. Drink alcohol in moderation. And, maintain or improve your weight. Excess body fat can increase the risk for heart disease.

The best habits for heart health are consistent exercise — 30 minutes a day, seven days a week — smoking cessation, eating a healthy diet and consistently taking your cardiovascular medication. Most of all, keep at it. The results will be worth it. Your greatest wealth is your health.

And wear red. It will make you feel better and more confident. Red invokes a “can-do” attitude.


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