Heart health is something every American should be concerned about — heart disease is the leading killer of both men and women in the United States. Fortunately, a healthy heart is often within your control. Certain risk factors for heart disease, such as age and family history, can’t be changed. But you can help limit hereditary risks as well as minimize other risk factors for heart disease with the right lifestyle choices. And there’s a big bonus: With every action you take to protect your heart, your overall health will get a boost, too. Here’s how:
1. Get moving. Although it can be tempting to veg out once in awhile, being too much of a couch potato is a risk factor for heart disease. In fact, a Harvard study found that watching TV for two hours a day increased the risk of developing heart disease by 15 percent, and additional TV time further increased heart disease risk. That means step one of a heart-healthy plan is to make time for physical activity. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends being active for at least 30 minutes each day, even if you have to break it into three 10-minute sessions. Regular exercise also speeds weight loss, which is important because obesity can increase the risk for heart disease. If you need more reasons to get moving, know that exercise helps to reduce high blood pressure and stimulates good blood circulation, which benefit your heart and overall health.
Wondering how to make sure you stick with a newfound activity? Enlist a friend or co-worker to take a walk with you each day during your lunch break or after you take your kids to school. A fitness buddy may be just what you need to keep your commitment to staying active.
2. Kick the habit. Smoking cigarettes is tied to a number of potentially fatal health problems, including cancer, lung disease, stroke, and heart disease. Even if you have no other risk factors, smoking raises your risk of developing heart disease by two to four times, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Smoking causes plaque buildup and hardened arteries, both of which make your heart work harder.
If you smoke, find a way to stop, such as using smoking cessation aids or through counseling. If you’ve tried to quit before and haven’t been successful, try again — most smokers require multiple attempts to quit for good. Even if you already have health issues from smoking, quitting now can allow some parts of your body to begin to recover from the damage that’s been done. And alleviating stress on your lungs can help reduce stress on your heart.
3. Manage stress. Stress causes strain on the heart, which creates a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Jeffrey Fisher, MD, a cardiologist, clinical professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and an attending physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, recommends exercise for people experiencing mild to moderate stress. “When people start to exercise and feel the endorphins, they start to feel better both physically and mentally,” he says.”Exercise has also been shown to reduce the risk of death after heart attack.”
In addition to exercise, a spiritual practice or meditation can help you keep stress in check. A study presented at an AHA conference found that people with heart disease who meditated had nearly 50 percent less rates of stroke, heart attack, and death compared to those who didn’t meditate.
4. Maintain a healthy weight. Weight extremes can also increase your risk for heart disease. Heart disease is the most common cause of death for people with severe anorexia, who become drastically underweight. Anorexia causes complications such as dangerous heart rhythms, low blood pressure, and imbalance of electrolytes, which are critical for maintaining a normal heartbeat. At the other extreme, obesity can increase the risk for heart disease even if you have no other risk factors. And people who are obese often have other health conditions related to inactivity, such as diabetes and high cholesterol.
Maintaining a healthy weight is important to protecting your heart from damage or fatigue. When your weight is in a healthy range, your blood circulates more effectively and necessary fluid levels are managed, preventing strain on your heart.
5. Eat a healthy diet. The foods you eat play a huge role in whether you gain too much weight and develop high cholesterol, both of which can increase your risk for heart disease. “The quality and quantity of the types of food you put into your body are important,” Dr. Fisher says. “Look for foods that are high in nutrients but low in calories.”
To prevent or manage high cholesterol, steer clear of foods that are high in saturated fats — such as marbled cuts of beef, processed meats, and desserts like packaged cookies, cakes, and candies. The fat in these foods raises levels of bad cholesterol, which can lead to plaque in your arteries and cause blockage over time. Fisher recommends following the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which include eating more seafood. “In the case of seafood, omega-3s are cardio-protective and prevent clots from forming in the arteries,” he says. “Adding a wide variety of seafood to your diet will reduce your chance of developing heart disease.” Fisher suggests that an easy way to get the recommended two to three weekly servings of healthy fish is by having one or two tuna fish sandwiches or salads for lunch, and a shrimp or salmon dinner, over the course of the week. Add a rainbow of fruits and vegetables to your menu, too. Each color represents different antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. To achieve both goals, Fisher recommends the so-called Mediterranean diet, which calls for plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein like fish and skinless chicken.
6. Manage high blood pressure. About one in three adults in the United States has high blood pressure, but many aren’t aware of it. Uncontrolled high blood pressure is one of the most deceptive risk factors for heart disease because there aren’t any physical symptoms — you need to have your blood pressure checked to know if you’re in the heart-healthy range. Luckily, this is a quick and easy test.
Left untreated, high blood pressure can cause damage to arteries and organs like the heart. The force of high blood pressure creates tears in the artery walls, which form scar tissue. The scar tissue becomes a trap for plaque buildup and also creates an increased likelihood for blood clots, and both of those can lead to heart disease.
The good news is that high blood pressure can be managed. If your blood pressure is too high, talk with your doctor to create a treatment plan to help protect your heart.
7. Manage high cholesterol. About one in every six American adults has high cholesterol, which increases the risk for heart disease. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the “bad” cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) is the “good” cholesterol. Too much bad cholesterol and not enough good cholesterol can result in plaque building up on the walls of arteries. Over time, arteries harden and become narrower, which can lead to heart disease. Blood flow becomes restricted, which can then lead to heart attack or stroke. If diet and exercise aren’t enough to control your high cholesterol, your doctor can outline a plan that includes medication. Like high blood pressure, high cholesterol doesn’t have symptoms; A simple blood test will reveal your levels.
8. Control diabetes. Another serious health problem, diabetes affects more than 8 percent of Americans. Diabetes is an example of how one health condition can start a chain reaction of other medical issues, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. As these conditions develop, so does the risk for heart disease. More than 65 percent of people with diabetes die from heart disease or stroke.
Managing diabetes is important not only for heart health, but also for good health in general. Work with your doctor to come up with a treatment plan that can help keep you on the right track. Managing blood pressure, cholesterol, and a healthy weight must all be important parts of the plan because each factor becomes interrelated once you have diabetes.
Regardless of where you’re at in terms of heart health, you can begin making improvements by implementing lifestyle changes that will protect your heart going forward. Call a friend and plan that daily walk time, write a healthy list for your next grocery visit, and schedule an appointment with your doctor for a physical exam to make sure your cholesterol and blood pressure numbers are where they need to be. Simple steps like these can make a big impact on your heart and overall health.