Whether it’s American Heart Month and heart health is on the mind, or you are just looking for ways to support wellness, we can’t talk about health without talking about habits for supporting a healthy heart. And, not to get too heavy, but there are some important things we need to remind you of when it comes to heart health. “Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, and stroke is the number five cause of death, and [together] they account for [nearly 30-percent] of all deaths in the US,” says Tae Yang, MD, interventional cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA. “Whether you are young or old, these statistics should warn each of us the importance of heart and vascular disease health for good health and longevity.”
And if you think this doesn’t apply to you, consider this: “According to the American Heart Association, about 48% of adults in the United States have some form of cardiovascular disease,” says Alexandra Lajoie, MD, non-invasive cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.
Heart health, in general, is usually something you don’t think about until you get a big red flag from a doctor… or something much worse happens. Here’s why that’s a major problem: “The risk of heart disease and stroke is cumulative, not necessarily acute,” explains Dr. Yang. “This means diseases happen due to previous conditions that add up to a heart attack or a stroke, and are not typically due to random events.”
In other words, our habits shape our heart health. With that said, incorporating heart-healthy habits into your lifestyle can greatly reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease and other heart-related issues. Ahead, we’re sharing healthy habits for heart health and breaking down why it’s so important.
How Our Daily Habits Can Affect Heart Health
Some of us are at a greater risk than others, explains Dr. Yang. “Genetics may determine a large portion of your heart health, but that factor is difficult to quantify.”
Outside of your genetic predispositions, “Risk factors include age, diabetes, hypertension, smoking history, high cholesterol levels, and any sort of end-organ diseases, such as COPD for lungs, or CKD for kidneys, or previous stroke for brains, etc.” says Dr. Yang. All of these put you at a greater risk for the aforementioned heart health problems.
Dr. Lajoie agrees. “People with a family history may be at higher risk for heart disease,” she says. “Even those without a family history may be at increased risk, especially if they are smokers, have high cholesterol, or have stressful or sedentary lives.”
And let’s not forget about chronic stress, insufficient sleep, and a poor diet — factors that can (significantly) affect adults of all ages!
Prevention is Key
The good news? Healthy habits can help. “Everyone should be mindful of their heart health because healthy habits and risk factors can develop in youth and progress over time,” says Dr. Lajoie. “Almost all cardiovascular disease can be prevented by managing risk factors including blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol. Early intervention to treat risk factors is the best way to prevent later disease.
Dr. Yang says this is one of the most important questions you can ask yourself: how much of my heart health can I control? There are a number of healthy habits that can set your heart up for long-term thriving, according to several cardiologists we spoke with. When it comes to heart health habits, the top recommendations continue to be a heart-healthy diet and avoidance of tobacco. But beyond that, there are some healthy habits you can incorporate every day to make sure you’re looking out for yourself and preventing disease, heart attack, and stroke.
9 Daily Habits For Heart Health
#1 Make Exercise a Priority
This tip came from every cardiologist we spoke with — it’s essentially the universal heart health tip! “Exercise is critical to heart health,” says Nicole M. Weinberg, MD, cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.
Here’s where it gets more specific, though: it helps you identify any heart health issues early. “Being able to push yourself and gauge how this affects you makes dialing into symptoms of coronary artery disease easier,” she says. “For example, if you normally run a mile without any symptoms, but now you can’t run past one city block, you need to see your doctor. Symptoms of coronary artery disease are not always chest pain or shortness of breath, and so that is why using your regular exercise as a barometer is key!”
“By being active, in general, you can burn more calories, lose weight, get muscle tone, feel better in your mind,” says Sanjiv Patel, MD, interventional cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA. “Do 60 to 75 minutes of moderately intense activities like jogging, running, biking (stationary or real); it will help counter problems from sitting if you have no choice.”
“Regular exercise is the best intervention to treat blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol and to maintain a healthy body weight,” says Dr. Lajoie. “I see the biggest drops in cholesterol levels in my patients who start a good exercise regimen.”
When it comes to exercise for heart health, the best regime is one you’ll stick to! Whether it’s walking, biking, yoga, or a FitOn strength class at home, find an exercise that works best for you and your fitness goals and stick with it.
#2 Stand Up & Sit Less
Speaking of sitting! Not only is sitting for too long bad for your back, hips, muscles, posture, and mood — it’s bad for your cardiovascular health, too. “Sitting for long periods of times, like six to eight hours a day, has been shown to increase the risk of developing truncal obesity, hypertension, higher blood sugar, higher cholesterol level, and metabolic syndrome, which then has increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from those events,” says Dr. Patel.
“This is because less energy expenditure leads to an increase in storage of energy in the form of fat,” says Dr. Patel. “The increase in stress hormones leads to higher blood pressure and blood sugar. Prolonged sitting can also lead to leg swelling and risk of blood clot formation in your leg veins, and the risk of varicose veins as well.” Dr. Patel has some suggestions on habits for breaking up your sitting time.
- Get a standing desk or cycling desk
- Schedule breaks every 30 mins
- Try activities that don’t require sitting; ones where you can stand or move
#3 Take the Stairs
“It is no surprise that the number of heart attacks greatly increased after the introduction of the elevator,” says Richard F. Wright, MD, cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. “I take the stairs at every opportunity.” Noted!
#4 Walk Everywhere
“I tell my patients to walk everywhere,” says Dr. Weinberg. “Even if you live in an area where you drive to get from place to place, park in the parking lot far away from the door and walk there. Walking is not only great for your heart, but it’s also very good for brain health, metabolism, joints, etc.”
#5 Try Gardening
When the ground starts to thaw near you, break out some gardening gloves and head to the nursery, suggests Dr. Weinberg. It can be a fun way to ‘work out’ without the conventional approach to exercise. “Gardening can give you moderate-intensity exercise and gives you the motivation to do this without requiring you to go to a gym,” she says. This is especially true if you’re north of 60. “A research study showed that regular gardening cuts stroke and heart attack risk by 30-percent for patients over 60 years of age.
“Garden on a regular basis for at least 30 minutes at a time,” says Dr. Weinberg. “One can position the plants in a way that is easy on your joints, or makes you have to bend and stretch further. You can dial up your intensity or have an ‘easier workout.’ If you garden fresh fruits and vegetables, you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. You can plant heart-healthy foods for the whole family to enjoy.” As an added bonus, it’s even been shown to boost your mood and benefit your mental health!
#6 Get Your Annual Physical
One thing you can check off your list right now: schedule your 2023 physical. “Patients who check in with their doctor will be able to have their risk factors of coronary artery disease assessed at this time,” says Dr. Weinberg. “You will have an EKG and get your blood pressure and fasting cholesterol checked. If these are assessed at least once a year, then there are fewer surprises as it relates to these ‘silent killers.’”
Dr. Yang explains that at your annual physical, you can go over cardiovascular health options and possibly be referred to a cardiologist. “Blood pressure management is so important,” he says. “Blood pressure needs to be checked regularly at home; the next most important thing would be cholesterol management. This will require patients to have a blood test to check for elevations in the cholesterol — a strong risk factor for heart disease.”
“A lot of cholesterol is a familial condition, and diet can contribute to about 50-percent of cholesterol elevation, meaning half of the cholesterol can be modified with lifestyle changes, dietary changes, and including weight loss as well,” says Dr. Yang. This is something your doctor can help you determine — and they can evaluate if you need more than just habit changes. Bottom line? Go make that doctor’s appointment.
#7 Make Your Own Food
“Above all, try to make your own food so that you can control what you eat and what goes in them,” says Dr. Patel. Here’s what that good, homemade food should look like on a heart-healthy diet:
Low Unhealthy Fat, Low Sodium, Low Cholesterol. “This is so that your arteries — that bring the vital nutrients and oxygen to the heart — stay open, thus, allowing the heart to do its job of pumping vital nutrients and oxygen to the rest of the body and keeping us alive,” says Dr. Patel.
Healthy Fat Sources. “Choose good fats, like mono and polyunsaturated fats,” he says. “Avoid saturated and trans-fat. Thus, choose lean meats, poultry without skin, and fish instead of fattier cuts of meat.”
Fruits and Vegetables. A given, but worth repeating. “They are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants,” says Dr. Patel. Try to load up on antioxidant-rich foods and eat the rainbow (i.e., loading up your plate with a diverse and colorful selection).
Dr. Weinberg agrees that conscious eating and making food at home can help you make better choices. “If you are eating fried food and sugary beverages, you are increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes,” she says. “All the medicine in the world cannot counterbalance this kind of lifestyle.”
#8 Drink More Water!
We know you don’t want to hear this, but try swapping one of your coffees with a glass of water. “During the course of a regular day, most people drink a lot of drinks that have diuretics in them, such as coffee and caffeinated beverages,” says Dr. Weinberg. “Taking the small steps of switching to drinking more water is a really easy fix.”
In general, H2O is the way to go (and we know you hear it a lot… that’s because it’s true!). “Staying well-hydrated is not only critical for your body health but also if you’re trying to lose weight, it’s helpful in keeping your stomach full,” says Dr. Weinberg.
#9 Get More Sleep
Dr. Lajoie says to consider a good bedtime routine (and perhaps an earlier bedtime, if necessary) to help your heart. “ Good sleep quality, including treating possible sleep apnea, is also important for cardiac health,” she says. “Treating sleep apnea can improve blood pressure significantly and result in weight loss, decreasing the need for prescription medications.”
RELATED: The Ultimate Guide To Sleep
Break These 2 Bad Habits For Better Heart Health
Two big things to ditch, according to the docs: cigarettes (or vapes!) and binges on alcohol, energy drinks, and fried food.
#1 Quit Smoking
“The most important thing for heart health is to not be a tobacco smoker,” says Dr. Yang. “Smoking cigarettes is strongly associated with heart disease, not to mention cancer risk as well. This is a strongly modifiable condition, and every effort should be made for smokers to stop smoking, and not to smoke at all, to begin with.”
Dr. Patel agrees. “Stop smoking,” he emphasizes. “This will single-handedly reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by 40- to 50-percent.” Dr. Lajoie echoes this sentiment, and says “The most important habit to avoid heart disease is to not smoke. Smoking is almost a guarantee that you will develop some form of cardiovascular disease during your life.”
#2 Ditch Overconsumption
Dr. Weinberg explains that a lot of patients make excuses for overindulgence, which can lead to heart problems, particularly if you’re overindulging in the more ‘heart threatening’ categories. “Please stay away from overindulging in the following,” she says.
Overconsumption of wine and beer. “There is a high amount of sugar in most wines and beers, which contributes to substantial weight gain as well as bloating,” says Dr. Weinberg. “They also elevate a patient’s blood sugars and increase inflammation, as well as increase the risk of diabetes in the system. Additionally, the byproducts of alcohol can trigger arrhythmias.”
Energy drinks. Another no-no. “There is such a high amount of caffeine in a lot of these energy drinks that it also can trigger arrhythmias,” says Dr. Weinberg. “This, coupled with lack of sleep, is generally the reason why people are having energy drinks to begin with — and it is a bad combination!” Try these store-bought stress-busting drinks instead!
Anything deep-fried. “There is no redeeming value to anything deep-fried,” she says. “It is bad for your heart and brings oxidants into your system (you want antioxidants)!”
With that said, we’re all about balance here at FitOn. We’re not saying you have to give up drinking in totality or never touch fried food again. If you’re out at a restaurant and you indulge in a little something fried every now and then, it’s not the end of the world. Of course, it’s not the healthiest option, but the occasional mindful treat is ok! The same goes for alcohol — beer and wine can be incorporated into a balanced lifestyle if healthy moderation and mindfulness are taken into consideration! Balance is key!
Healthy Lifestyle, Healthy Heart
This might sound like a lot, but think of it this way:
- Eating well
- Moving more
- Taking walks
- Not sitting so much
- Drinking some water
- Taking up gardening or another low-key but active hobby
- Sleeping better
- Going to see your doctor
All of those things were likely already on your healthy lifestyle to-do list, right? They reduce stress, improve mood, enhance energy levels… and they just so happen to help your heart and long-term health.
“Almost all cardiovascular disease can be prevented by managing risk factors including blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol,” says Dr. Lajoie. “Maintaining healthy lifestyle habits like not smoking, exercising regularly, and making heart-healthy diet choices can treat these cardiac risk factors.”
If you’re worried that this won’t be enough to help your heart, or you know you have a family history of heart disease, this is where your physician plays a crucial role. Always speak with your doctor about individual concerns as there is never a one size fits all approach.
So bottom line: even reading this right now, and starting to take ownership of your heart health, is a step toward a happier, healthier future.