February is American Heart Health Month – how are you taking care of yours?

Tips for a healthy heart

Tips for a healthy heart

Romantic hearts may be top-of-mind during the month of February, but it's also a good time to think about heart health. There is nothing romantic about heart disease. The CDC shows that heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Fortunately, there are plenty of precautions that can be taken to help avoid its onset. 

Opt for smart lifestyle choices. Healthy habits like diet choices and exercise can help prevent heart disease. As well, making lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking, eating a colorful range of whole foods, giving up excess sugar, and minimizing stress can help reduce your family's risk of developing risky heart disease.

So, how does a busy family make heart health a priority? Begin by looking in your refrigerator. Families should consume a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fiber and lean protein to give their hearts everything it needs to power the body.

According to Liz Westinghouse of Saugerties, a registered dietitian, certified dietitian and nutritionist, certified personal trainer and mother of two, everyone should eat their rainbow each day.

"This will always be something that I suggest - eating fruits and veggies of different colors each day will give your body different antioxidants and nutrients, as well as fiber," she said. "Plus, they fill you up."

Cook at home. Cooking foods from scratch may sound time-consuming, but it can help reduce your intake of salt and sugars, which can have an impact on overall health. Encourage kids to eat heart-healthy snacks like fresh fruit and low-fat dairy to keep them full and fueled with good nutrition. 

If your family is accustomed to snacking on foods from commercially prepared packages and eating take-out meals on the regular, plan to switch them for more nutritional options ahead of time.

"Take an hour or two on Sundays to work on prepping some quick eating items for the week," said Westinghouse. "Grill up a bunch of chicken to have on hand. Roast a tray of veggies. Boil up some whole grains like brown rice. Then quickly throw them all together in a bowl with your favorite dressing or sauce."

READ MORE: Easy, wholesome eating for kids

Start by swapping one or two drive-through or convenience-packaged meals a week with dishes made at home. You can also set a goal to try one new fruit or vegetable a week until your family has a go-to list of favorites.

As you and your kids master one change, continue on for the next. It can be hard to get picky eaters to try new things but it's worth it. Remember that slow and steady is the way to go for new habits that contribute to lasting health. 

Make time for movement. Once you have a few healthy swaps under your belt, focus on movement. Not every kid has access to team sports, nor can every family get to the local YMCA or gym. But most families can incorporate extra heart-healthy movements into their days by literally taking small steps. Experts recommend that people engage in at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity a day, five days per week.

Try walking together as a family after dinner one or two nights a week and get the heart pumping. If a weeknight walk through the neighborhood isn't doable, consider loading the family into the car on weekend mornings for walk on local trails, if available. Alicia Gambino of Saugerties is mother of two and fitness instructor at The Sport of Iron in Kingston, who gets her kids out and moving regularly.

"My kids enjoy nature in all seasons," she said. "We hike together as a family at home in our woods and at our favorite local trails. Most recently, their adventurous nature has led us to explore new and more challenging adventures."  

READ MORE: Hudson Valley’s cold-weather hiking spots

When possible, parents should join their kids in heart-healthy sports. Grab a basketball and head to the local park to swish hoops together, show your kids that you've still got it and hit the tennis courts or kick around the soccer ball in the back yard. Not only will your kids get to share something they love with you, but also you will both benefit from the movement.

Start healthy habits early. Even little kids can get in on the benefits of taking care of their health. Put on upbeat dance music for a dance party after dinner or when getting ready in the morning. Kerenza Weaver of Red Hook keeps her little ones active by calling dance parties regularly.

"We dance around the house a lot," she said. "Nothing fancy, just fun, silly dancing, usually to Frozen (soundtrack)." Or, she said, they listen to The Laurie Berkner Band's "kindie rock" and act out songs like Goldfish or We Are the Dinosaurs. 

Pick up a pedometer or fitness tracker for each family member to see how much or how little movement each person gets during the day. Then, set a goal together to fit in more. Making physical activity a family a routine and creating a simple, healthy meal plan are great ways to instill good habits for you and your family's lasting heart health and overall wellness. 

Roxanne Ferber is a mom, blogger and freelance writer living in the Hudson Valley.