FORT HOOD, Texas (Feb. 14, 2012) -- The statistics from the American Heart Association and other agencies are shocking.

Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women in the United States with about one person dying from cardiovascular diseases every 38 seconds. Cardiovascular diseases claim more lives each year than cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases and accidents combined. Every year, approximately 785,000 Americans have their first heart attack. Approximately 17 percent of Soldiers have reported having high blood pressure since they entered the Army.

Statistics alone are usually not enough to spur patients to take action, so Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center professionals have stepped up their efforts during American Heart Month this February to encourage beneficiaries to take small steps to help protect their heart health.

"Heart disease is not reversible but it is treatable. So it's better to prevent it in the first place. An ounce of prevention is really worth 1,000 pounds of cure in this case," said Maj. (Dr.) Manju Goyal, CRDAMC cardiologist.

Everyone should be aware of the risks of heart disease, added Goyal, which include high cholesterol levels and blood pressure, obesity, physical inactivity, tobacco use, and diets high in saturated fats and sodium.

"High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking are three of the five most preventable and treatable risk factors for heart disease," she added.

CRDAMC Army Public Health Nurse 1st Lt. Jennifer Istre, encourages patients to "just get moving" to help reduce their risk.

"Inactivity leads to obesity, which is a major risk factor," Istre said. "It is astounding when you consider how many Americans aren't active, despite knowing the many benefits from regular exercise."

The American Heart Association recommends exercising for 30 minutes most days of the week for the best heart health benefit. Yet 36 percent of adults and nearly 50 percent of teens and young adults reported they do not exercise or engage in vigorous physical activity on a regular basis, according to the 2011 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistical Update.

"If you can't find the time for 30 minutes continuous exercise, try doing 10 or 15 minute bursts. Look at simple ways to incorporate activity to your life such as parking further away and taking the stairs versus taking an elevator," said Istre. "Don't get caught up in the specifics or worry about what you can or cannot do. No matter how slow you go, you are still lapping everyone on the couch."

While even moderate bits of activity are beneficial, Brian Lehmann, dietitian at the Army Wellness Center located at the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Training Center campus suggests patients exercise with more intensity.

"We directly measure patients' V02max to help them determine their personal 70-85 percent maximum heart rate, the recommended range for exercising to get the best heart healthy outcomes," he explained. "In our Weigh to Live program, we teach patients to aim for at least 10,000 steps per day from all activities. More is always better, as 12,000-14,000 daily steps are recommended for weight loss."

Quitting smoking is another way to reduce risk of heart disease. Despite shocking statistics that show cigarette smoking accounts for approximately one of every five deaths in the United States each year, 21.5 percent of adult men and 17.3 percent of adult women continue to smoke cigarettes. Almost 20 percent of high school students reported current tobacco use.

"Many people link cigarette smoking just to lung cancer, but it also is a big risk factor for heart disease. The nicotine constrains blood vessels and the increased carbon monoxide impact the body's efficiency to process oxygen. When you smoke, your heart has to work so much harder," said Mary Jackson, community health nurse. "We know that's it not the easiest thing to quit. But is probably the single best thing you can do to improve your health."

While the benefits of quitting smoking are proven, unfortunately, many smokers mistakenly think of smoking as a way to reduce stress for them.

"There are definitely more healthy ways to reduce stress. When stress is overwhelming, or poorly managed, it can negatively affect your health by raising blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol," said Donna Vajgrt, director, Army Wellness Center, located at the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Training Center campus. "These days, people are less and less capable of leaving stress at the office because everyone is connected 24/7. Try turning off your phone, tablet, or computer for at least 15 minutes. Put on some relaxing music, close your office door for 10 minutes, and listen and breathe."

Vajgrt added that the Army Wellness Center also helps patients reduce stress through its free massage chairs and upcoming Stress Management/Bio feedback classes.

In addition to taking steps to get more active, quit smoking and reduce your stress, you need to make a conscious effort to eat a heart healthy diet, according to Barbara Hughart, clinical dietitian, at CRDAMC's Nutrition Care Division.

High sodium intake contributes to increased rates of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. The Institute of Medicine recommends 1500 mg of sodium per day as the adequate intake level for most Americans and advises everyone to limit sodium intake to less than 2300 mg per day. Yet the average daily sodium intake for Americans age two years and older is 3,436 mg.

"Many people just don't realize how much sodium they consume in a day. We've become so accustomed to adding salt to season foods. It appears in so many of the foods we buy and eat," Hughart said. "Just one teaspoon of regular salt a day wipes out the 2,300 milligrams of sodium for a low salt diet without using any of the processed higher sodium foods."

People hesitate to give up their salt, so Hughart recommends making small changes over time.

"I often tell patients to slowly reduce the amount of salt they use. If they can tolerate onions, garlic, peppers, and other strong flavored vegetables, they can add those to their cooking instead of salt to help improve flavor without the added salt. It is possible for a person's taste buds to change back to like those of a baby who accepts foods with no added salt," she said. "Remember to always chose food closer to fresh or frozen and also to check sodium content and serving sizes, to ensure you're staying within acceptable amounts of sodium."