People with close relationships at home, work or in their community tend to be healthier and live longer, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

“Feeling connected with others and having positive, close relationships benefit our overall health, including our blood pressure and weight. Having people in our lives who motivate and care for us helps, as do feelings of closeness and companionship,” states the NHLBI.

“As we age it takes more effort to maintain these relationships, but they can be vital to encouraging a healthy lifestyle. We simply need to find creative ways to connect.”

Heart disease is a leading cause of death for men and women in North Carolina. Most middle-aged and young adults have one or more risk factors for heart disease, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or being a smoker or overweight. The good news is heart disease is largely preventable with lifestyle changes.

February is American Heart Month and the NHLBI suggests these lifestyle tips to help protect hearts.

Move more — Invite family, friends, or colleagues to walk “with you” regularly, add the date on both your calendars, and text or call to make sure you both get out for a walk. If you cannot physically be together, try talking on the phone while walking. If you have small children have a family dance party instead. At least 2 ½ hours of activity each week is suggested, which is equivalent to 30 minutes a day, five days a week, or 10 to 15 minutes a few times per day.

Aim for a healthy weight — Find someone in your friend group, at work, or in your family who also wants to reach or maintain a healthy weight. Check-in with them regularly to stay motivated. Agree to do healthy activities, like walking or cooking a healthy meal, at the same time, even if you can’t be together.

Eat heart-healthy — We tend to eat like our friends and family, so ask others close to you to join in your effort to eat healthier. Aim to eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy. Limit sodium, saturated fats, added sugar, and alcohol. It can be as simple as choosing drinks without added sugar such as water, milk, or 100% juice.

Quit smoking — To help you quit, ask others for support or join an online support group. Research shows that people are much more likely to quit if their spouse, friend, or sibling does. Social support online can help you quit. All states have quit lines with trained counselors—call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669). You’ll find many free resources to help you quit, such as apps, a motivational text service, and a chat line at BeTobaccoFree.hhs.gov and Smokefree.gov.

Manage stress — Reducing stress helps your heart health. Set goals with a friend or family member to do a relaxing activity every day, like walking, yoga, or meditation, or participate in an online stress-management program together. Physical activity also helps reduce stress. Talk to a qualified mental health provider or someone else you trust.

Improve sleep — Sleeping seven to eight hours a night helps to improve heart health. De-stressing will help you sleep, as does getting a 30-minute daily dose of sunlight. Take a walk instead of a late afternoon nap. Family members and friends: remind each other to turn off the screen and stick to a regular bedtime. Instead of looking at your phone or the TV before bed, relax by listening to music, reading, or taking a bath.

Track Your Heart Health Stats, Together — Keeping a log of your blood pressure, weight goals, physical activity, and if you have diabetes, your blood sugars, will help you stay on a heart-healthy track. It can also be fun to challenge others to stay on track with you!

Try this heart healthy recipe:

Hawaiian Huli Huli Chicken

12 oz boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into one-inch cubes (about two large breasts)

1 C fresh pineapple, diced (or canned pineapple chunks in juice)

8 6-inch wooden skewers

Sauce Ingredients

2 Tbsp ketchup

2 Tbsp lite soy sauce

2 Tbsp honey

2 tsp orange juice

1 tsp minced garlic

1 tsp minced ginger

Preheat a broiler or grill on medium-high heat. Thread three chicken cubes and three pineapple chunks alternately on each skewer. Combine ingredients for the sauce and mix well; separate into two bowls and set one aside for later. Grill skewers for three to five minutes on each side. Brush or spoon sauce (from the bowl that wasn’t set aside) onto chicken and pineapple about every other minute. Discard the sauce when done with this step. To prevent the chicken from drying out, finish cooking skewers in a 350-degree oven immediately after grilling (to a minimum internal temperature of 165 degrees). Using a clean brush or spoon, coat with sauce from the set aside bowl for serving. This dish pairs well with brown rice and grilled vegetables.

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