Taking care of your ticker now can ensure a long life free of heart disease and other complications. Here’s how to live a heart-healthy lifestyle.
1. Eat less salt
Sodium causes your body to retain water, which can raise your blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease. (This doesn’t mean you’re destined for bland food: Here’s how to add flavor without salt.)
2. Cut down your sugar intake
Sugar is also bad for your heart because it promotes metabolic syndrome, says Paul Knoepflmacher, MD, a clinical instructor in medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Metabolic syndrome is cluster of metabolic disorders, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high cholesterol. (Avoid these sneaky sugar sources in your diet.)
3. Eat more whole foods and fewer processed foods
This naturally cuts out sodium and sugar from your diet, and ensures you eat a wide variety of health-promoting vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other heart-healthy nutrients. Try these nutrient-rich snacks next time you feel like you need to nosh.
4. Pick plants over meat
Animal-based products like steak (and even eggs and dairy) have saturated fat, which plays a role in the development of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol. No one’s saying you have to snap your fingers and turn vegan, but the more you can opt for a veggie-based dish over a meat-based one, the healthier it may be for your heart. Switch to fat-free or low-fat dairy products, and stick to leaner meats (like chicken, turkey, or lean cuts of red meat).
5. Include cardio + strength training in your workout routine
Research has shown that 30 to 40 minute jaunts of regular moderate-to-vigorous exercise (like brisk walking, hiking, or jogging) three to four times per week can help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and help you maintain a healthy weight. There’s a reason they call it *cardio* exercise, right? But don’t forget strength training (squats, lunges, planks, and the like). This type of exercise is good for helping your body utilize blood sugar; reducing your risk of diabetes is one of the best things you can do for your heart.
6. Do yoga, read fiction, or treat yourself to a foot massage
What do these all have in common? They help you fight off stress. “If you have two patients with intermediate heart disease and one has a high stress job, that can actually count as an additional risk factor for heart disease,” says Satjit Bhusri, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
7. Go to sleep a little earlier
If you’re like most Americans, you’re not sleeping as much as you should. And that not only makes you tired and cranky; it’s not great for your heart either. “One thing my patients may not realize is how important sleep is for their overall health and also for their cardiovascular health,” says Dr. Knoepflmacher. People who don’t sleep enough are at higher risk for high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease—regardless of their age, weight, smoking, and exercise habits.
8. Stop smoking
We know it, you know it: Smoking is toxic for your entire body, and it’s accelerating the rate at which you could develop heart disease or a cardiac event. The chemicals in tobacco smoke can harm your blood cells and damage the function of your heart, which increases your risk of heart disease and heart attack. Learn more here about how smoking affects your heart.
9. Floss your teeth once a day
While gum disease (periodontitis) does not cause heart disease, it may increase your heart disease risk. That’s because heart disease and gum disease share a key underlying cause: inflammation. “Gum disease [is] a source of chronic inflammation. We’re starting to understand that inflammation underlies a lot of the heart disease that we see,” says Dr. Knoepflmacher.
“Even low levels of inflammation anywhere in your body, especially in your gums—like a little cavity that’s aggravating you—[is] causing an inflammatory response to your whole body and that can lead to acceleration in both heart disease and stroke,” says Dr. Bhusri.
10. Eat oatmeal for breakfast
It’s a great source of cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber. “Adding more fiber to the diet can actually decrease cholesterol by 10 percent,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a nutritionist and cookbook author in New York City. According to a Harvard study, a fiber-rich diet may also lower your risk of coronary heart disease by 40 percent. Lentils, whole wheat grains and breads, carrots, and apples are also great sources of fiber.
11. Stick to one or two glasses of alcohol a day (or less)
“We know that alcohol is actually—in some ways—good for the heart in moderation,” says Dr. Knoepflmacher. “We know that alcohol can raise the level of HDL, or good, cholesterol.” But too much can raise blood pressure, weaken heart muscle, contribute to abnormal heart rhythms, and cause excess calorie intake. “You can certainly enjoy alcohol responsibly, but you do have to stick to those serving sizes,” says Largeman-Roth. “The dose definitely makes the poison.”
12. Eat more seafood
“Seafood is the richest source that we have of omega-3 fatty acids,” says Largeman-Roth. “Omega-3 fatty acids really do protect the heart.” Omega-3s help to lower LDL cholesterol, and also boost HDL cholesterol, which is the cardio-protective type of cholesterol, she says. Omega-3 fatty acids also decrease triglyceride levels and lower blood pressure (slightly). Largeman-Roth recommends eating two servings (about 3.5 ounces each) of heart-healthy fatty fish per week, like salmon, herring or albacore tuna.
14. Don’t ignore potential heart disease warning signs
Most Americans don’t know all the signs that could point to heart problems. In a survey of 72,000 people conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 92% of respondents recognized chest pain as a symptom of a heart attack, but only 27% were aware of all major symptoms. When someone is having a heart attack, they might feel:
- Chest pain or pressure that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach
- Shortness of breath (with or without chest discomfort)
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
When you’re having a heart attack symptoms tend to come out of nowhere. “Tightness or pressure comes on all of a sudden; you can be awakened from your sleep or just doing nothing,” says cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director at NYU Langone Health in New York. Symptoms of a heart attack also tend to get progressively worse.
If you’re feeling any symptoms of potential heart trouble (even if chest pain isn’t on the list), don’t wait to find out whether it’s heart disease or a heart attack. When you first experience chest tightness, shortness of breath, or notice that your exercise endurance has gone down, it’s important to seek medical attention right away, says Dr. Goldberg.
14. Know your numbers
All those numbers your doctors and nurses throw around during check-ups can seem like a foreign language, but they’re actually a really useful tool in managing your heart health and preventing heart disease. These health metrics give you feedback on how well your heart-healthy lifestyle changes are paying off—or possibly if they need to be adjusted. It’s critical to know your blood pressure, know your cholesterol, know your weight and BMI, and know your blood sugar.