One of the secrets of healthy aging is properly taking care of your body, which includes paying attention to your heart health. Your heart needs some attention and TLC to make sure it’s performing as well as possible. If you’re concerned about heart disease, high blood pressure or your overall heart health, there are certain good behaviors and habits you should drop and other good ones you can pick up. According to cardiologists, these small changes are the best things you can do for your heart.
It’s important to understand that 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 to improve your health,” said 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.”
While it’s never too late to start heart-healthy habits, you can get a head start by beginning to control risk factors for heart disease at a young age. Choices you make and habits you form in your teens, 20s and 30s will affect your cardiovascular health decades later.
One of the best ways to prevent heart disease is to stay ahead of it through regular check-ups with your doctor. Many Americans are unaware of their own risk factors for heart disease, according to cardiologist and public health expert Dr. Garth Graham. “Getting regular checkups with your doctor will help start the conversation about what you can do to prevent heart disease,” he said. Regular doctor appointments will also help your physician see more subtle signs and symptoms that could signal something serious.
Not sure what to ask your doctor during your appointment? 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 said. “It often runs in the family and is genetic, so make sure to get checked out.” The American Heart Association recommends that adults have their cholesterol and other traditional risk factors checked every four to six years starting at age 20.
Another measure that can help detect oncoming heart problems early is known as a CACS scan. “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,” said cardiologist Dr. Joel Kahn. “The CACS saves lives, especially in fit and asymptomatic patients. ... 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. It needs to become as routine in our medical practices as mammograms and colonoscopies.”
One of the ways to make sure you’re getting the most out of an appointment with your doctor is to know your family medical history. “Know your health-related information, including family history and significant numbers like blood pressure, cholesterol, sugars and omega-3 index,” advises cardiologist Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a Fellow of the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association. Your family history will help your doctor better understand your symptoms and more accurately treat you as well as know what to screen and test for as preventative measures.
Regular physical activity will not only help protect your heart but also improve other aspects of your health. Some people are intimidated by exercise, but there are so many easy and accessible options, including free online apps and classes. “You don’t need to be an athlete or run marathons to get valuable exercise and reduce your risk of heart disease,” said Dr. Houman Khalili, an interventional cardiologist with Tenet Florida Cardiovascular Care. “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.” 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 — for example, exercising for 30 minutes and then taking a 15-minute walk twice per day.
Many people start to gain excess weight in their 30s and 40s due to busy schedules and slowing metabolisms. Maintaining a healthy weight is a key component to maintaining a healthy heart. According to the American Heart Association, extra fat and unnecessary pounds put a strain on your heart and can increase your blood pressure, so many cardiologists will recommend that their patients modify their diet and exercise for weight loss.
A “cleanse” or other short-term, extreme or trendy diet plan could lead to weight loss in the short term, but likely will not be successful long term. “I like to tell my patients that long-term sustainability is the most important thing when starting a diet,” Dr. Graham said. “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.”
It can be difficult to determine what foods you should eat every day, but a good rule of thumb is to opt for “whole foods” — which are less processed foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. “Eat tons of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes,” said cardiologist Dr. Nicole Harkin. “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.”
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. Foods high in sodium can actually send your blood pressure through the roof.
The majority of Americans eat more than the recommended amount of added sugars each day. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 9 teaspoons per day for men and no more than 6 teaspoons a day for women. However, one 12-ounce can of soda contains 8 teaspoons, around one day’s suggested allotment. “Decrease the amount of simple sugars that you are eating,” Dr. Gardner said. “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.”
It’s hard to look out for salt and sugar as well as eat a balanced diet if you don’t know what’s in the things you’re eating. That’s why cardiologists recommend that patients read food labels — and learn how to accurately interpret them to avoid some of the worst foods you could be eating. “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 said.
According to the American Heart Association, smoking is one of the risk factors that most affects cardiovascular health. Cigarette smokers have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease as well as a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. If you’re a smoker, quitting is the best thing you can do for your heart health.
Everyday stress negatively affects the body in a variety of ways, but it particularly can take a toll on your heart. “[Stress] 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 said. Luckily, there are many stress-relief tactics out there that can make a difference, such as yoga or spending quality time with loved ones.
Indulging in creative endeavors and learning new hobbies can do more than curb boredom — it can actually be beneficial to your health because it helps counter stress. “Allow yourself freedom to explore new hobbies at any age,” said Dr. Joanna Joly, an assistant professor in the cardiology division at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Practicing something you love can bring you joy and reduce stress.” Now could be the time to try your hand at knitting or growing a garden indoors.
Mindfulness practices can also 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,” said Dr. Anand Chockalingam, 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.”
Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center recommends mindfulness practices and meditation apps to her patients as well as something that’s often referred to as “the best medicine” — laughter. “Laughing actually causes a relaxation response,” Dr. Goldberg said. “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.” So the next time you’re feeling stressed, queue up your favorite funny movie, stand-up special or feel-good TV show.
It might seem overwhelming to do a complete overhaul of your lifestyle, but you don’t have to change everything in one day. “It’s important to realize that small changes will lead to bigger changes,” Dr. Goldberg said. “It’s important to break it down into tasks you can manage. Take one day at a time.” If you’re looking for more small ways you can improve your overall health, here are healthy habits to learn from people who never get sick
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