Be Heart Smart

7 heart-healthy tips for American Heart Month


Maybe it’s not on the top of your “To do” list to stop smoking, eat healthier and get regular checkups, but this month, the American Heart Association is asking you to have a change of heart. Every year, heart disease takes the lives of more than half a million Americans, and it remains the leading cause of death in the United States. February was named American Heart Month to combat this issue and empower people to make healthier choices.

Here are 7 tips from Dr. Lisa Umphrey, senior cardiologist with Chattanooga Heart Institute at Memorial Hospital, to keep your heart in tip-top shape.


In order to better prevent heart disease, Umphrey says that people need to be aware of their risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol.

“Know what your blood pressure is and take active measures to reduce your blood pressure if that is an issue,” she says. “A normal blood pressure is less than 120 over 80. Prehypertensive is between 120 and 130 and then greater than 140 over 90 is hypertension. I think people should know what their blood pressure is and if they need to take measures to reduce it, taking medications or changing it naturally with diet.”


The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recommend at least 30 minutes of exercise a day most days of the week. Find something active that interests you and pencil that activity in on your schedule each week.

Whether that’s a game of tennis or a hot yoga class, any activity that gets your heart pumping is a good option to help keep you healthy.


One of the simplest ways to reduce your risk of heart disease is to stay away from foods that are high in salt – so, next time you get the munchies on the road, consider snacking on an apple instead of grabbing a Big Mac.

“Many people are salt sensitive and fast foods are loaded with salt and fat,” says Umphrey. “Just eat at home more.”

For patients who complain about not having enough time, Umphrey says she just grabs her lunch bag as an example. “In my lunch sack right now is a bottle of water, homemade butternut squash soup, an apple, a bag of carrots, grapes, dried fruit and nuts,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of time either. I usually pack my lunch the night before. It’s portable, and whether I’m running from the clinic to the hospital or I have a patient who needs more time, I can grab a quick snack without getting fast food.”


Stress can cause unnecessary strain on the body that makes people more at risk for heart disease. “Stress can do a lot of different things to the body and people that are under higher stress do have higher risk,” says Umphrey. “People should look into activities to manage their stress like regular exercise, prayer, a hobby you enjoy, having someone close that you can talk to about things. Those are all good stress management techniques that are healthy.”


Umphrey recommends eating a healthful diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains – and the fewer animal products, the better.

“I tell my patients to eat more fruits and vegetables, and if the meat falls off their plate then that’s perfect,” she says. “For many people I try to tap into their religious faith because religion is such an important part of the South; I try and direct them to the first book of Daniel.

Daniel said, ‘Only give us vegetables and water to eat and see if we’re not healthier than the other men,’ and they were.”


Many people associate cigarette smoking with lung cancer — but did you know that smoking is also a major cause of heart disease for men and women? Smoking can cause coronary artery disease which makes up almost 20 percent of all deaths from heart disease.


Remember all those times that your mom told you that breakfast was the most important meal of the day? Well, she was right, says Umphrey.

“Breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day, and a lot of people will go through the drive-thru because they’re hungry and in a hurry,” she says. “I keep instant oatmeal that’s already in a cup at my desk so if I don’t have time for breakfast, I have my oatmeal. All I have to do is add hot water. They also have whole-grain cereals in easy travel containers that you can eat, and fruit is very portable.”


Generally men over the age of 45 and women over the age of 55 are more at-risk for heart disease, but young people can have heart disease as well. Typical signs of heart disease are:

• Chest pain that generally is in the center of your chest, but can radiate to the jaw or the shoulder

• Pressure on the chest

• Chest pain or pressure that comes on with exertion.

• Women can have atypical symptoms like shortness of breath with activity, swelling in their legs or shortness of breath while lying down at night.