February is heart month — and we’re not just talking valentines. Since it was designated in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, this month has been dedicated to cardiovascular health.

There’s been a lot of research in the five decades since then, and we urge our patients to be heart-conscious in their health and lifestyle choices. Clinicians have studied both genders, and while the advice overlaps it’s not identical for both men and women.

Healthy Heart Habits for Women

One new study followed nearly 70,000 women for 20 years. The subjects recorded habits such as diet and exercise, and submitted other health information to researchers every 2 years. None of the participants had diabetes or diseases of the heart or blood vessels at the beginning of the study, and their average age was 37.

Researchers identified six habits with the greatest impact on heart health:

  1. Don’t smoke.
  2. Have a normal body mass index (BMI).
  3. Get moderate to vigorous exercise for at least 2.5 hours a week.
  4. Watch 7 or fewer hours of television weekly.
  5. Drink one or fewer alcoholic beverages daily.
  6. Eat a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, or omega-3 fatty acids — as well as limit sugary drinks, processed and red meats, trans fats, and sodium.

Women who followed all six healthy habits (less than 5% of study participants) nearly eliminated their heart attack risk, cutting it by 92%. They also decreased their likelihood of getting a risk factor, like high blood pressure, by 66%.

Don’t let an all-or-nothing mentality discourage you from taking steps toward heart health. According to study leader Andrea Chomistek, ScD, “even women who reported only one or two healthy behaviors had a lower risk of heart disease than those who did zero.” She also specifies that maintaining a normal BMI had the greatest impact on lowering the risk.

Even women who developed risk factors, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure, but still followed at least four of the habits, demonstrated a lower risk of contracting heart disease, compared to those women who didn’t follow any.

Disturbingly, the overall U.S. death rate from heart disease has increased among younger women ages 35 to 44. Newer research indicates that premenopausal women benefit from the same protocol as older women, in contrast to previous beliefs.

Healthy Heart Habits for Men

In another recent study that looked at men and heart disease, Swedish researchers from the Karolinska Institute followed more than 20,000 men. When the study started in 1997, the subjects were ages 45 to 79 and had no histories of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart or blood vessel diseases, or high cholesterol. They reported their health habits to researchers for 12 years.

The researchers found that following these five habits cut men’s heart attack risk by 86%:

  1. Don’t smoke.
  2. Eat a healthy diet.
  3. Drink alcohol moderately: about two or fewer drinks daily.
  4. Be physically active — walk or cycle at least 40 minutes daily.
  5. Have a waist circumference of less than 37 inches.

Only 1% of participants followed all five healthy habits. Researchers concluded the two most important habits for men were a healthy diet and moderate drinking.

Embracing Healthy Habits

Evaluate the list of healthy habits which experts recommend, and start by targeting just one or two. Consider what prevents you from embracing these habits, and what might be driving you towards unhealthy behaviors. For example, if your stressful schedule prevents you from eating a healthy diet, try countering that stress with exercise. As you develop an exercise routine, you may find your stress diminishes and you’re better able to take the time to eat well.

Even practicing just a few of the recommended habits will go a long way to significantly reducing your risk of heart attack or heart disease.