Taking care of your heart is an investment that will pay off for the rest of your life—and it’s never too early to start. Here are seven ways to keep your ticker happy, so you can be heart healthy for life.
1. Slash your salt and sugar intake. “The two biggest things that I say to all my patients is to cut the sugar and cut the salt,” says Satjit Bhusri, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. 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.) 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.)
2. Pump up your produce. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables—about eight servings a day, per the American Heart Association—can do wonders for your weight and overall health, and reduce your risk of heart disease. Your doctor may recommend the heart-healthy DASH eating plan, which has been proven to lower blood pressure and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. Here are expert tricks to incorporate more fruits and veggies into your diet.)
3. Lose weight. A healthy weight is key for a healthy heart. “Your heart is a machine, and it pumps blood to your whole body continuously—60 to 80 beats per minute. If you have more fat or more weight added to that, that’s extra stress that the heart has to push against,” says Dr. Bhusri. Knowing your body mass index (BMI)—a measurement that takes your weight and height to determine your total body fat—can help you and your doctor assess your risk. A healthy BMI is considered between 19 and 25.
4. Cut back on saturated fat. “Saturated fat does increase LDL cholesterol,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a nutritionist and cookbook author in New York City. High-fat dairy, fatty cuts of meat, and coconut oil are all sources of saturated fat. Do your heart a favor: Switch to fat-free or low-fat dairy products, and stick to leaner meats (like chicken, turkey, or lean cuts of red meat).
5. Make exercise a habit. 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. If that seems like a lot, start slow. Even 10 minutes of physical activity a day offers heart-healthy benefits. Something is always better than nothing.
6. Soothe your 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 Dr. Bhusri. Stress can zap your energy, make you irritable, and temporarily cause your heart rate and blood pressure to rise. What’s more, people tend to respond to stress by medicating with unhealthy behaviors, like eating junk foods, drinking, or smoking.
For one way to help combat stress, make sure you’re getting enough sleep—for most people, that’s 7 to 9 hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation—each night. Just one night of bad sleep can make you irritable and stressed the next day. What’s more, research has shown that most Americans would be happier and healthier if they were to get just an extra 60 to 90 minutes of snoozing per night. (Learn about other ways your body suffers when you skimp on sleep.)
7. Stop smoking. This one is obvious, but if you smoke, quit. (If you don’t smoke, don’t start.) 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.
Being heart healthy is a permanent lifestyle adjustment—it’s OK to take small steps (better than no steps!). Make these switches at your own pace and gradually change your habits one by one. These small steps you take now will reap big rewards: better quality of life, longer life, and a healthier, happier you.