Your heart is working hard all day, every day; it pumps blood through your veins, spreads nutrients throughout your body, keeps your senses alive, and so much more. Keeping in mind all those amazing feats your heart performs for you, you probably want to give it a little love in return. There are some simple actions you can take to improve your heart health. But what habits do you possess that actually could do serious harm?
Consequences of not taking care of your heart include a greater risk of health conditions like stroke and heart attack — all of which can be deadly. Heart disease reigns supreme as the No. 1 killer in the United States, causing approximately 610,000 deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Luckily, science has come a long way. People no longer believe cigarettes come without consequences, and people know a little more about how to follow a heart-healthy diet. Doctors can advise patients on the habits and influences that increase their risk. Of course, every person’s plan for preventing heart problems is going to be a little different. Talk to a doctor who knows you well to decide what’s best for you. But generally, there are some guiding principles that everyone should follow. From the wise words of doctors themselves, these are some things you might do that cardiologists say could hurt your heart.
No matter what exercise you choose to do, it’s important to get moving. “Being a couch potato can actually be hazardous to your heart health,” says Dr. Houman Khalili, an interventional cardiologist with Tenet Florida Cardiovascular Care (TFCC). “As we get older especially, we tend to adopt a more sedentary lifestyle. Adults over the age of 60 spend close to 10 hours in sedentary time.” This is bad news for your heart disease risk, Khalili says. “Those who spend over eight hours of their day being sedentary can almost double their risk of heart disease,” he says. And while getting exercise outside of those sedentary hours is important, “the increased risk is not completely washed away because you exercise the rest of the day.” If you work a desk job, consider going for a few walks throughout the day or investing in a standing desk.
Processed meats include deli meat, hot dogs, bacon, and some types of sausage. “All of these products are high in saturated fat and salt, which increase your risk of heart disease and stroke,” says Dr. Nicole Harkin, board-certified cardiologist and lipidologist of Manhattan Cardiovascular Associates. “They have also been linked to certain kinds of cancers.” That’s not the only risk these types of meat pose to your health — here are a few other reasons you might not want to eat them every day.
Dr. Harkin also advises avoiding sugary, non-nutritious beverages such as soda. “Loaded with calories and sugar, they are pro-inflammatory,” she says, “and they increase your risk of diabetes.” Soda isn’t the only sugary beverage you might be drinking — these popular drinks have surprising amounts of sugar.
You may be tempted to try out a new diet you see trending on Instagram or in the media, but it’s likely safer to steer clear. There are actually risks of trying some of the more popular weight loss tricks and diets — even seemingly innocent changes, like cutting out all carbs, could be caustic. Cardiologist Dr. Garth Graham says, “Diet changes should be done under the guidance of your care provider. Strict diets often cut out foods that provide vital nutrients and, all too often, people who lose weight by crash dieting gain it all back (and then some) when it’s over.” In cutting out vital nutrients, you may end up with a vitamin or mineral deficiency, as well.
“Vitamins and supplements can be very beneficial to your health,” Dr. Graham says. “But the key is to talk to your doctor before adding any supplements to your diet to ensure they are appropriate for your unique health situation — particularly if you take prescription medication for an ongoing health issue.” Additionally, Dr. Graham advises you don’t trust what’s printed on the supplement’s label. “Certain supplements marketed as ‘fat burners’ can have extremely harmful side effects and typically don’t work for keeping weight off in the long term,” he says. Always consult your doctor before taking one of these pills.
Dr. Graham warns against falling for the marketing ploys of so-called “health foods.” “A lot of foods masquerade as healthy, but can be overly processed or loaded with sugar and salt,” he says. “For example, turkey bacon can sometimes be a great alternative to regular bacon, but is often loaded with sugar and has high amounts of sodium.” Gluten-free options, too, can be deceiving. “Many gluten-free options pile on sugar and fat for flavor, so it’s important to look at your labels,” Dr. Graham says. “If you are not allergic to gluten but avoid it anyway, you may not be getting the vitamins, fiber, and minerals you need. A gluten- free diet is not a weight-loss diet and is not intended for you to lose weight.”
Drinking can negatively impact your health in more ways than one. But protecting your heart is definitely something to consider when pouring yourself another. “Alcohol can raise blood pressure levels and increase your risk for heart disease and further complications down the line,” says Dr. Graham. “Women should have no more than one drink a day and men no more than two.” There’s some evidence to show that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, especially antioxidant-rich drinks such as red wine, is OK. But the amount is crucial to keep in mind.
The risks of smoking cigarettes are extensive; your heart health can seriously suffer. “Smoking narrows blood vessels, reduces oxygen supply, and increases plaque buildup,” says Anand Chockalingam, MD, a cardiologist at Missouri Health Care. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is responsible for approximately one in every four heart disease-related deaths.
Leading a stressful lifestyle can do damage to not only your mental health, but your physical health as well. “Stress increases blood pressure, cholesterol, and risk for diabetes,” explains Dr. Chockalingam, “which in turn affects heart health.” A little mindfulness goes a long way in reducing stress and improving health; here are some little things you can do to incorporate mindfulness into your day.
Sleep is of the utmost importance when it comes to your health — getting enough sleep can even help prevent heart disease. “A lack of sleep causes elevated lung pressure, electrical instability, irregular heart beat and heart failure,” Dr. Chockalingam says. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center, says, “People who get less than seven hours of sleep have higher levels of blood sugar and have modest increases in blood pressure. When you don’t get enough sleep, you also have increases in stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine.” Elevated stress hormones can, in turn, result in other health problems — being sleep-deprived is like one huge domino effect.
It can be difficult to do if you work a desk job, but try not to sit for long periods of time throughout the day. “Sitting too long can increase one’s risk for cardiovascular disease,” says cardiologist Adam Splaver, MD. “It can also increase your risk of heart attack and stroke, as well as diabetes and cancer. Multiple observational studies confirm this finding; in a study in the journal Diabetologia, a meta-analysis looked at 18 studies with over 794,000 participants. The findings showed that a sedentary lifestyle increased risk of developing diabetes by 112 percent, the risk of cardiovascular events by 147 percent, and the risk of cardiovascular mortality by 90 percent.”
If your doctor prescribed you a certain treatment plan involving medication, there’s likely a good reason why. Don’t try to improvise or meddle with your medication — it could be risky. “There is no place for creativity in medication management,” says Dr. Splaver. “Always consult your physician before stopping or starting a medication.”
Fried appetizers and french fries are definitely delicious — but be aware that they aren’t going to be the best thing for your heart. “It’s no surprise that a study published last month determined that eating fried foods leads to a higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease,” says cardiologist Dr. Brandie Williams of Texas Health Physicians Group. Dr. Williams advises limiting these foods and incorporating more heart-healthy options into your diet.
“One of the worst things you can do for your heart is ignoring potential symptoms of a heart attack,” says Dr. Helga Van Herle, MD, a cardiologist at Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California. “If you think you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, seek urgent medical attention.” Symptoms of a heart attack are actually different for women and men, so it’s important to know what signs are relevant to you. These unexpected symptoms could signal a serious heart problem.
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