You know the risks. You’ve heard the warnings about heart disease and high blood pressure. Maybe you’re ready make a change. Your heart needs a little TLC to keep beating well into your old age. It’s possible, though, that you don’t know exactly what kind of care your heart actually needs.
There are certainly some habits your heart wishes you’d quit. But there are also positive changes you can make to your life to help your heart out. Everything on this list, from regular doctor’s visits to stress management techniques, can make a difference.
It might seem overwhelming to do a complete overhaul of your lifestyle. But you don’t have to do it all in a day! “It’s important to realize that small changes will lead to bigger changes,” says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center. “It’s important to break it down into tasks you can manage. Take one day at a time.” So while you might not be ready to make all of the changes suggested on this list, keep in mind that even ticking off one or two can still make an impact. According to cardiologists, these are some of the best things you can do for your heart.
When your doctor asks a question, you want to know the answer. “Know your health-related information including family history and significant numbers like blood pressure, cholesterol, sugars, and omega-3 index,” advised Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women’s cardiovascular prevention, health and wellness at Mt. Sinai Hospital and founding member of the Global Nutrition & Health Alliance (GNHA). Your doctor asks questions about your health and your family history so that they can better understand your symptoms and more accurately treat whatever may be going on. Additionally, details about your family history of heart conditions can help your doctor to know what kinds of things to screen and test for as a preventative measure.
You might be scared away from exercising regularly because it seems exceptionally difficult; but exercising can be easy if you find something that works for you. “You don’t need to be an athlete or run marathons to get valuable exercise and reduce your risk of heart disease,” says Dr. Houman Khalili, an interventional cardiologist with Tenet Florida Cardiovascular Care (TFCC). “A moderate amount of exercise every week is an excellent way of reducing your risk of heart disease, and can cut your risk by almost half without having to take any prescription pills.” Additionally, Dr. Khalili says that it’s never too late to start exercising. “The benefit of exercise is cumulative, meaning the earlier you start, the more benefit you have to gain. But there is still benefits to exercise whether you are 16 or 60 years old.” Dr. Khalili advises his patients to exercise for 60 minutes a day, 3 to 5 times a week. If you can’t find 60 minutes to spare, try splitting the 60 minutes into intervals — exercising for 30 minutes, and then taking a 15-minute walk twice per day, for instance.
Not sure which foods contain the nutrients you need to stave off disease? Don’t bother chasing the latest trends or searching for superfoods. Know that you can keep things really basic and still eat a nutrient-rich diet. “Eat tons of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes,” says Dr. Nicole Harkin, board-certified cardiologist and lipidologist. “These foods are rich in antioxidants, fiber, and phytonutrients. This type of diet has been shown to lower risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and cholesterol.”
The best way to prevent heart disease is to keep up to date with your current health status. “According to a 2018 Morning Consult Poll conducted for CVS Health and American Heart Association, while 92 percent of women say heart-related conditions are a serious issue in the U.S., many remain unaware of their own risk factors for heart disease,” says cardiologist Dr. Garth Graham. “Getting regular checkups with your doctor will help start the conversation about what you can do to prevent heart disease.” Checking in with your doctor can help prevent other health conditions, as well. Your doctor can help you catch on to subtle signs you might think aren’t a big deal, but could signal something serious.
Sure, a “cleanse” or other short-term or extreme diet plan might (or might not!) lead to weight loss in the short term, but you might want to think twice before trusting one. Dr. Graham advises not to rely on any diet that you can’t realistically see yourself sustaining. “I like to tell my patients that long-term sustainability is the most important thing when starting a diet,” he says. “Don’t go after the latest fad diet or trend; there will always be setbacks in your diet routines and you will gravitate back to what fits well into your everyday life.”
“You must take control of your stress,” Dr. Graham says. Not to stress you out, but research shows that stress over time can lead to long-term damage to your heart. “It releases adrenaline, a hormone that causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. This can eventually cause injury to your artery walls,” Dr. Graham explains. “Inflammation prompted by stress can cause rashes, rosacea, eczema, and changes in skin moisture.” Luckily, there are many stress-relief tactics out there that really work. “You might try yoga, walking, breathing apps, meditation, or spending time with loved ones. Identify what relieves your stress. For some people spending time with their children is a stress reliever, for some it is the opposite. Tailor your activities to what works for you,” Dr. Graham says.
One of the best things you can do for your heart in terms of dietary habits is to keep tabs on your salt intake. “The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams a day and trying for an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 milligrams per day. But on average, most Americans eat more than 3,400 milligrams per day,” Dr. Graham says. He says that much of this sodium comes from processed foods and snacks; though, other sodium-rich items are less obviously unhealthy.
It’s hard to eat a balanced diet if you don’t know what’s in the things you’re eating. That’s why Dr. Graham tells his patients to read food labels (and know how to accurately interpret them). “Reading the labels on your packaged food will help you have a better understanding of the levels of trans fat, saturated fat, and sodium you might be eating,” Dr. Graham says.
Your health is your choice — and your responsibility. If you want to make heart health a priority, it’s up to you to follow through. “As doctors, we make recommendations about what you should do and how improve your health,” says Dr. James Gardner Jr., an invasive cardiologist at Tenet Florida Physician Services. “But it is ultimately up to you to make the healthy choices that shape your heart and health. You are your best advocate for yourself.”
Many Americans eat more than the recommended amount of added sugars (which are different from naturally-occurring sugars, such as those found in fruit) each day. “Make sure that you decrease the amount of simple sugars that you are eating,” Dr. Gardner says. “They can be hidden in many of the foods you love. But you want to prevent diabetes — not to mention, reap the other benefits of a lower-sugar diet.”
Not sure what to ask your doctor? Dr. Gardner advises asking for a cholesterol screening — it could help catch a potentially dangerous condition for your heart. “Make sure that you get screened for hyperlipidemia or high cholesterol,” he says. “It often runs in the family and is genetic, so make sure to get checked out.” You should get the test even if you think you’re totally healthy! It, like these other medical tests, could actually save your life.
Literally. Tune in to your body and how it’s feeling — cardiologists can only tell so much from the outside! Learn to trust that if something feels off, it’s worth mentioning to your care providers. “If you think that something is off, then make sure you see a health professional,” Dr. Gardner says. “It’s better to be safe than sorry.” Even the smallest symptoms could signal something serious!
It might sound trivial, but indulging in creative endeavors and recreational hobbies can be extremely beneficial — and not just to your boredom. “Allow yourself freedom to explore new hobbies at any age,” says Dr. Joanna Joly, assistant professor of the cardiology division at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Practicing something you love can bring you joy and reduce stress.” Of course, she says, some people are better able to access resources and leisure time than others — but it’s worth investing in if you can. Reducing stress is key to maintaining good heart health.
“One of the best things you can do for your heart is take preventative action by requesting a CT scan of the heart called a Coronary Artery Calcium Scan (CACS),” says preventative cardiologist Dr. Joel Kahn, MD, of the Kahn Longevity Center. “The CACS saves lives, especially in fit and asymptomatic patients.” Even if everything seems healthy and you aren’t experiencing symptoms, the scan can help detect an oncoming heart problem early, so that further measures can be taken to prevent it from getting worse. “It has been proven in hundreds of medical research studies to be the most accurate way to identify aging arteries before heart attacks and death,” Dr. Kahn says. “It needs to become as routine in our medical practices as mammograms and colonoscopies.”
Stress can wear and tear on your health in many ways, but especially for your heart. Mindfulness practices have been proven to alleviate stress and improve health long-term — which is why many cardiologists recommend them to their patients. “Take a few minutes each day to relax,” says Dr. Anand Chockalingam, MD, cardiologist at University of Missouri Health Care. “Sit alone quietly and pay attention to your thoughts and emotions. Find reasons to be grateful. I also encourage using simple breathing techniques because they help to rejuvenate both your body and your mind.” A mindfulness practice can be as extensive as lengthy meditation or as brief as a simple, two-minute check-in. Here’s an easy mindfulness exercise you can do anywhere, even on your busiest days.
When you think about taking care of your heart, mental health probably isn’t the first thing that floats to your mind. But you should be paying it more attention. Cardiologist Dr. Nieca Goldberg always emphasizes the importance of mental health and lowering stress levels. She sometimes recommends meditation apps to her patients, as well as a general mindfulness practice. But even simpler than that, she says, is simply finding laughter. “Laughing actually causes a relaxation response,” Dr. Goldberg says. “Studies show that laughing improves your blood vessel health. Study participants were shown two types of movies: sad, dramatic movies and funny movies. The researchers found that the people who were laughing while watching funny movies experienced a physical relaxation response.” That response helps to alleviate stress — and improve the health of your heart. But that’s not all a little laughter can do for you. Here are 20 incredible benefits of happiness on your body.
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