By KATHRYN RISSER

Did you know that February is American Heart Month? How appropriate, with all the decorative Valentine’s Day hearts posted throughout the stores!

But while Valentine’s Day sales tend to promote chocolates and roses, let’s not forget Heart Month by putting a heart-healthy spin on the holiday.

What leads to a healthy heart? Diet, exercise and stress are three major contributing factors to heart health.

Nutrition

A heart-healthy diet focuses on low fat, low salt and a variety of foods. Perhaps you have heard of the DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (high blood pressure). While most people would benefit from following DASH guidelines, you should speak with your doctor before committing to a new diet plan.

In the meantime, some simple food substitutions can be made on Valentine’s Day to be heart friendly. Instead of a box of chocolates, give your loved one a colorful, abundant fruit platter. Instead of a high-fat steak, make a beautiful and spicy stuffed pepper.

Cooking at home is a great way of controlling what and how much you eat. It is also a great way to bond and spend time with your loved one. Turn on some music and enjoy experimenting in the kitchen together!

There are various resources available to find heart-healthy meals. American Heart Association is a great website with recipes and information regarding proper nutrition for general heart health.

Physical activity

The heart is a muscle, so it makes sense that exercise would strengthen your heart muscle. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity a week.

Consider taking a walk with your dog, signing up for a boxing class, or trying rock climbing. Do something you know you enjoy or be adventurous and try something new!

Lifestyle

Continuous stress and anxiety can put pressure on the heart. Becoming aware of how you react to stress and taking efforts to combat stress will benefit your heart’s health.

Meditation, spending time in nature, laughing and talking are all good ways of handling stress. Another great stress reliever is massage — a nice suggestion for a Valentine’s Day gift.

So, why do we assign a full month for heart-health awareness? Cardiovascular disease, listed as the underlying cause of death, accounts for about one of every three deaths in the United States, according to the American Heart Association.

Heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure affect so many of our family members and loved ones. Let us not allow this to be the norm! There are simple steps we can take to reduce our risks.

Monitor blood pressure, lose weight if you are overweight, and get active. If you want to be around to celebrate more Valentine’s Days with your sweetie, take steps to be the healthiest version of you.

Taking care of your own health and being watchful of your loved ones’ health is one of the greatest gestures of love. Make this the start to a path of good health.

Risser is a Bluffton University dietetic intern at the Ohio State University Extension of Hancock County.

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