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February has to be one of the worst months in Kentucky. The days are short, the nights are long, the weather is gray and the warm spirits that kept us going during the holidays and into the new year have long since faded.

So what better time of year than this to declare it “American Heart Month?”

That’s right, February is the month to focus on heart health, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Heart disease is a problem throughout America, but it is particularly fatal in Kentucky, consistently ranking in the top causes of death in Kentucky. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2017 there were 10,343 Kentuckians who died from heart disease. Kentucky ranked ninth that year for the rate of death caused by heart disease. Per 100,000 population 196 people died of heart disease in Kentucky in 2017. That compared to a national rate of 165, but that national rate is elevated because of the terrible rates in the worst states, most of which are in the Midwest and Deep South. States with the lowest rates include Colorado at 123 and Minnesota at 119.

While heredity plays a role in many aspects of our health, including heart health, there is much we can do to prevent heart disease, and it mostly comes down to lifestyle changes. Most notably diet, exercise and tobacco usage.

The month of heart health awareness has been broken up into four themes. Be physically active together, eat healthier together, Track your heart health together and manage stress, sleep better and quit smoking together.

Notice what all four of those include: “together.” Finding a partner to provide support can be a real difference maker. In person is probably best, but even making living healthy a part of your social media existence can help. Post your progress, you might be surprised at how supportive others can be, and we can all use a little more positivity in our social media lives, anyway.

Another big help can be a fitness tracker. There was a time when it was mostly competitive athletes and fitness nuts who would strap the heart monitors around their chests to monitor the productivity of their exercise.

But in recent years wearable technology has progressed to the point where most smart watches can monitor a person’s heart rate, and many offer more advanced measurements like heart rate recovery. Your recovery rate — the difference between when your target exercise heart rate returns to your resting rate in three minutes — can help monitor your general heart health. Prices for many trackers have gone as low as $80, and some employers even offer free or reduced prices through their wellness programs. Pick one up, if you have not tried it, you might be surprised how addictive monitoring your own vital stats can be.

In addition to living longer, a healthy heart can improve the quality of that living. Start with an easy goal this month and build on those successes. Maybe just cut down on the junk food. Or, increase your activity.

The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week. That’s only about 22 minutes every day (they recommend to spread it throughout the week). You don’t have to turn into a gym rat — it can just be a brisk walk or even gardening.

Try it. You’re going to feel better, both physically and mentally. And together, maybe we can make an impact on our health and live longer, fuller lives as a result.

Let’s get started this month. Let’s get started today.

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