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Love Your Heart This Valentine's Day!

February 14th is Valentine's Day, a holiday that traditionally focuses on feelings of the heart, not to mention flowers, candy, and the occasional marriage proposal. Why not make this Valentine's Day different and do something physically good for your heart?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one American dies every 34 seconds from heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular diseases. So this year don't just give your heart away, keep it strong with these simple tips:

1. Eat Chocolate

Enjoy the Valentine's Day tradition of eating chocolate, but choose the right kind for a healthy heart. Research suggests that chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is high in flavonoids, a compound that protects the cardiovascular system.

"Not all chocolate is created equal," says Dr. George Blackburn, director of the Center for the Study of Nutrition Medicine at BIDMC. "The more processed a chocolate product is, the less rich it is in protective flavonoids, so darker, less processed chocolate is better."

Choose chocolate with a high cocoa content - 70% or more. But before you gorge yourself on dark chocolate, remember that while chocolate may contain some health advantages, it should not be considered a "health food." Moderation is always key.

2. Visit Your Mom (and ask her about your family's heart history)

Studies show, the closer the relative with heart disease, the greater your risk of developing heart disease.

"Family history is very important, especially if heart disease happens in first degree relatives (mother, father, brothers or sisters) in their 40's or 50's," says Dr. Joseph Kannam, cardiologist at BIDMC's CardioVascular Institute. "Family history can also be important for hereditary conditions such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, unexplained sudden death, and aortic aneurysms, to name a few."

If you have multiple first-degree relatives with heart disease, your doctor may decide to monitor your situation closely, and may even have you take a daily aspirin as a preventative measure.

3. Book A Physical

It's important to see your doctor regularly - even if you're feeling okay. Problems with blood pressure or cholesterol may arise, particularly as you get older, and you may not even know it. Doctors recommend you always know your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers - including your levels of good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol. If there is an issue, simple diet changes can sometimes help. If not, your doctor can discuss treatment options. Also important: If you've packed on too many pounds, work with your physician on a plan to achieve a healthy weight. Taking these steps could help prevent heart problems in the future.

4. Go Dancing (or running, or walking, or swimming…just get moving!)

Like any muscle, the heart needs exercise to stay fit. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends moderately intense cardio exercise 30 minutes a day, five days a week for healthy adults under age 65. Any activities that use large muscle groups, are repetitive, rhythmic and non-stop are recommended, including running, rowing, or cycling.

"Regular exercise helps control blood glucose levels, blood pressure and cholesterol," notes Exercise Physiologist Carine Corsario from BIDMC's Tanger Be Well Center. "Plus, it can help improve your mood, reduce stress and increase energy."

For those who need a more low-impact activity, Corsario recommends walking, swimming, elliptical training and low impact aerobics for a good workout without putting stress on your joints.

If you find you're so busy it's hard to get in any exercise time, build a little extra activity into your daily routine:

  • At the grocery store, leave your cart in one place, grab as many items as you can hold and walk back and forth to the cart. When unloading your car, carry one bag into the house at a time.
  • Turn off the TV, turn on some music and dance! Just 15 minutes of dancing can burn an average of 80 calories, and can help lift your mood.
  • Make the most of work around the house. Mopping the floor, vacuuming rugs and even shoveling can be excellent aerobic workouts. However, when shoveling, be sure to protect your back and lift with your legs.

"If you work in a sedentary office job, get in the habit of getting up and moving at least once an hour and take a walk during your lunch break," suggests Corsario. If possible, place frequently used items (pens, stapler, notepads) on a higher shelf so you have to get up and reach to use them.

Most importantly, says Corsario, "Before you begin any exercise program, speak with your primary care physician."

5. Stress Less

It's normal to have a little stress in your life, but too much stress, left unmanaged can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease.

"Stress, when it becomes chronic, does have a negative physiological impact on blood pressure and heart disease, as well as the immune system and depression," cautions BIDMC Psychiatrist Dr. Michael Miller. "You've got to give yourself a break."

Dr. Miller recommends taking time for yourself. Enjoy a long, luxurious bath, go for a peaceful walk, or see a movie. Socializing is good for relieving stress, so call a friend and go out to lunch. What you should not do is rely on unhealthy habits to relieve stress.

"If you drink, smoke or eat too much you're going to feel more stress, not less," says Dr. Miller. "Be good to yourself and your heart."