February is American Heart Month, a time for people to evaluate whether they are at risk for cardiovascular diseases such as heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure, and to take steps to improve their health.

Many people may feel daunted when they think about tackling something as significant as heart disease, but the good news is that many of the risk factors – such as diet, physical activity, tobacco use, and obesity – are directly in your control!

Know Your Numbers – Planning for better health begins with knowing where you’re starting.  If you haven’t had a physical recently and don’t know your numbers, make sure to find out where you stand with good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, total cholesterol, blood pressure, weight and body mass index.

Eat a Healthy Diet – Eat a diet rich in nuts, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, as well as beans, fish and other low-fat proteins.  Limit saturated fats such as red meats and dairy products and eliminate trans fans from your diet, such as fried food, most baked goods, pre-packaged snacks and crackers. Many people also should consider reducing salt in their diets.

Quit Smoking – Quitting smoking can have a wide array of health benefits – including health heart.  If you need support to quit, contact your doctor.

Exercise – Get 30 minutes or more of exercise most days of the week, including cardiovascular exercises and weight training to get your heart pumping and lower your body fat.  Remember to start slow and that it’s fine to exercise for 10 or 20 minutes at a time until you build up endurance.  You can even start with something basic like a chair workout with light weights.  Check with your doctor before starting any exercise routine.

Sleep –Most people need seven to nine hours of sleep each day, preferably on the same schedule.  If you don’t wake up feeling refreshed, or if you keep hitting the snooze button over and over, you likely are not getting enough sleep or may not be getting restful sleep.  If increasing the amount you sleep doesn’t help, you may need to have a doctor evaluate your sleep quality.

Relax – Stress has many negative effects on the body, including raising blood pressure.  Take time each day to relax, whether that is with a long walk, a hot bath or a good book.  One simple, effective means of relaxation is meditation, which you can do anywhere.   Most any activity that helps you feel relaxed can work to lower stress hormones in your system.

Take steps today to start improving your heart health!  You’ll be amazed how easy it is to implement small changes!