Nov 13, 2021
Don’t skip a beat! Check out these easy steps you can take right now to promote a healthier heart.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States, accounting for approximately one in every four deaths (CDC). High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and tobacco use are all major risk factors for developing heart disease. Although some people are born with a genetic predisposition to heart disease, it is not unavoidable. There are numerous ways to prevent the onset of heart disease — and to keep it from worsening if you have already been diagnosed with a specific heart problem. Here are some tried-and-true heart disease prevention strategies to get you started.
Have any vegetables? The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests eating a few meatless meals per week and increasing your intake of fiber and whole grains. This is because animal meat and full-fat dairy products contain the majority of the cholesterol-raising saturated fat in the American diet. Consuming more vegetarian foods may help lower your cholesterol and lower your risk of heart disease. There are numerous ways to increase the amount of fiber in your diet. Jill Nussinow, RD, recommends eating:
“Keep in mind that plant foods contain fiber while animal foods do not, and animal foods contain cholesterol while plant foods do not,” Nussinow says.
Obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease, and it affects the majority of Americans. According to the CDC, 74 percent of adults in the United States are overweight, with nearly 43 percent obese. Obesity also raises the risk of other heart-related health problems, such as stroke and diabetes. “However, once you lose weight, everything starts to correct itself: blood pressure drops, glucose levels drop, and ‘good’ cholesterol levels rise,” says George P. Rodgers, MD, a cardiologist in Austin, Texas.
And you don’t have to lose a lot of weight to start reaping the benefits for your heart. “It could be as simple as losing 15 pounds, or 10% of your body weight,” Dr. Rodgers says. If you’re having trouble losing weight, consult with your doctor about what a healthy weight for your body is and how to begin a nutritious diet and exercise program.
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity. Staying fit can help your heart health in a variety of ways, including lowering blood pressure, managing your weight, lowering cholesterol, controlling your blood sugar, and even reducing stress.
Make it enjoyable by enrolling in an online group fitness class or enlisting the help of a friend to go for a walk outside with you. You’ll be more likely to be consistent this way. If fitting in even a half-hour walk seems impossible on some days, break it up into shorter intervals — a 10-minute walk in the morning, another at lunchtime, and another at night. Making exercise a regular part of your routine, such as parking further away from a building entrance so you walk a few extra steps, is an easy way to do this.
Simply lacing up your athletic shoes and going for a brisk walk is one of the simplest and most convenient ways to help prevent heart disease. Walking is a good form of moderate aerobic activity that can help reduce your risk of heart problems such as obesity and high blood pressure. But you must do more than simply walk around the block. “If you wear a pedometer that counts steps, aim for 10,000 steps a day,” says Joanne Larsen RD, a licensed dietitian with extensive experience in nutrition counseling. This is equivalent to about five miles, depending on your stride.
Wearable fitness trackers, according to research, can motivate people to exercise more. According to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in December 2020, people who use these popular digital devices walk an extra 1,850 steps per day — equivalent to about one mile — compared to nonusers. You didn’t meet your goal? Increase your daily walking by taking walk breaks instead of snack breaks at work, and take the stairs whenever possible.
Following a heart-healthy diet entails watching your sodium, sugar, and fat intake, as these are linked to risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. In general, packaged foods are less healthy than fresh foods, so it’s critical to read food labels to truly understand what you’re eating. “Sometimes the full-fat version of a food is actually better for you,” Nussinow says, “because the low-fat or nonfat versions often have a similar calorie level but far more sugar.” Other times, a product may be lower in calories but much higher in sodium. “It’s usually better to have smaller amounts of real food, especially with items that contain healthy fats, such as peanut butter and avocado.” Of course, eating too many calories of healthy-fat foods is still a bad idea — moderation is key.
Sleep deprivation has been linked to a number of risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, and heart failure, as well as a sleep disorder known as sleep apnea. Sleep apnea causes multiple pauses in breathing during sleep, resulting in poorer sleep quality and decreased oxygen supply to the blood. According to the AHA, when this happens, the body releases stress hormones, which can increase the risk of heart disease over time.
Furthermore, sleep apnea is linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, stroke, arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation, and heart failure. Snoring loud enough to disturb your sleep or the sleep of others, sporadic episodes of choking that wake you up several times per night, and excessive daytime sleepiness or fatigue are all symptoms of sleep apnea. If you suspect you have sleep apnea, consult your doctor about having a sleep test performed.
Much has been written about red wine’s heart-health benefits, but the evidence is still mixed. Some studies, such as one published in the journal Nutrients in November 2018, have found that resveratrol, a substance found in red wine, may help reduce inflammation, which has a negative impact on heart health. Red wine contains antioxidants and may raise HDL (the “good cholesterol”) levels in the blood. Other evidence suggests that, when consumed in moderation, alcohol of any kind — beer, red or white wine, or hard spirits — may help raise good cholesterol. If you don’t drink alcohol now, the potential benefit to your heart health isn’t a reason to start — there are plenty of other ways to help your heart, such as regular exercise and a healthy diet. If you do drink, keep in mind that the heart benefits are only applicable if you drink in moderation, which is defined as one serving per day for women and two servings per day for men. A serving of alcohol is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.
Stress is a normal part of life, but high levels of stress can affect a number of risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, overeating, smoking, poor sleep, and a lack of physical activity. When the body is stressed, it releases the hormone cortisol, which can raise cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and blood sugar. As a result, stress reduction is an essential component of living a healthy lifestyle.
According to the evidence, practicing mindfulness meditation is one way to accomplish this. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry discovered that mindfulness-based stress reduction programs were associated with a reduction in stress symptoms such as chronic worrying and poor sleep. The AHA also suggests engaging in your favorite stress-relieving activity, even if only for 10 or 15 minutes, such as reading a book, playing a sport, creating art, playing with children or pets, listening to music, gardening, or practicing yoga.
Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease in and of itself, and when combined with other risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity, it increases the risk of heart disease even more. Smoking damages the cells that line the arteries, increases blood clotting, and raises blood pressure and heart rate — and secondhand smoke can be just as harmful. This means that your cigarette habit may be endangering the health of those around you. If you need assistance quitting smoking, consult your doctor. The good news is… Five years after quitting, your risk of having a heart attack drops to that of a nonsmoker.