February 2019

 

FIFTEEN LITTLE WAYS TO PROTECT YOUR HEART 

 

A jaw-dropping number of Americans are at risk for cardiovascular disease, but you don’t have to be one of them. These doable lifestyle tweaks can make all the difference.

 

Heart disease is a head-scratcher.  We know it exists.  We know it’s lethal.  And a lot of us know it’s elbowed out every type of cancer to become the leading cause of death in the U.S.  About half of all adults have a least one of the key risk factors, like high blood pressure or cholesterol levels.  Everyone needs to pay attention.  The risk factors for heart disease can be entirely asymptomatic for a very long time.  And many people who stand to develop it look completely healthy.  The upshot is that you actually have a great deal of control over your heart health.  A few simple changes can prevent the disease even among folks who are most at-risk.  Here are some proven ways to find your path to a healthier heart.

Talk with your Doc.  Primary care physicians and ob-gyns are at the front line for screening patients for heart disease, and a lot of them aren’t having the conversation.   It’s not on purpose, of course.  It’s just that it isn’t always top-of-mind during standard office visits.  So, bring it up yourself!  And ask early.  Heart screening should start in your 20’s, not 40’s.  That cardiac once-over should include family history and vitals like blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels. 

Mix up your workout.  Even though most of us think of cardio as THE exercise for heart health, incorporating strength training actually does a better job at lowering blood pressure, and keeping it down, than aerobic workouts alone.  To get the blood pressure benefits, add about 20 minutes of weight training 3-4 days per week to your regular routine.  The AHA recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate activity (like walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous (running) per week.

Go cold turkey.  If you smoke, stop.  As in: right now.  Abruptly quitting is more effective in both the short and long term than tapering your habit.  Need more motivation?  Know that within one year of quitting you can slash your heart disease risk by one-half.

Get at least 7 hours of sleep per night.   People who sleep for 5 hours or less a night have hearts that are about 1.5 years older than those who get an adequate 7 hours.  Sleep is so incredibly important that no matter how well you eat or how much you exercise, if you’re not getting enough rest, the benefits of those healthy lifestyle choices are substantially diminished. 

Get your legumes on.  Eating ¾ cup a day of cooked lentils, peas or beans reduces “bad” LDL cholesterol by 5%.  Thanks for that, fiber!  And we could stand to eat more beans: Americans’ average daily intake is only 2 tablespoons!  Slather hummus on sandwiches or add legumes to salads or soups.

Much less meat.  Keeping red meat intake occasional is key.  Swapping one daily serving for healthier protein sources like nuts, beans or fish can lower your odds of developing heart disease by as much as 30%, according to the literature.  You don’t have to be a hardcore herbivore to reap the benefits.  When you cut back you decrease risk.

Eat earlier.  There’s something to that old’ eat-breakfast-like-a-king’ advice.    Consume the majority of your daily calories by 3 PM and have a much easier time controlling your weight and blood pressure.  Have a modest evening meal: it’s heart smart.

Nibble on some dark chocolate.  Bypass the Halloween bargain bin variety and head straight for the dark stuff.  Eating about 3 1-ounce servings of dark chocolate per week significantly lowers risk of cardiovascular and other heart-related diseases.  This is likely because of chocolate’s flavonoids, which dilate blood vessels and help prevent arterial stiffness and plaque buildup.

Take a coffee break.  Coffee has been extensively studied and the results are remarkably consistent: Drinking 3-5 cups a day is associated with a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and of heart disease-related death.  It’s likely the mix of antioxidants, polyphenols and other compounds.  And while steering clear of sugar-bomb brews is a good idea in general (sorry, whipped caramel mocha), even those who like their java a little sweet and creamy saw positive results.

Take a 25-minute music break.  Less than a half-hour of listening to soothing (like classical) music can notably lower blood pressure and heart rate.  The soothing, slow-tempo tunes likely tamp down levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that contributes to high blood pressure.  Note: classical or not, as long as the music you choose is lyric-free and you find it pleasant, it’s likely to have a positive impact on your heart.

Get up every 30.  Getting up frequently during the day can reduce waist size and heart disease risk.  So, whether you’re toiling at your desk or on the couch watching TV, get off of your rear at least every half hour.  After 30 minutes in a chair, enzymes in your legs that break down cholesterol because inactive, leading to the accumulation of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol over time.  Set a reminder to move!!

Get a furry friend.   Dogs are your best friend for guarding against heart disease.  People who have dogs are as much as a third less likely to die of cardiovascular disease than those without furry friends.  The social aspects are important, as is the opportunity for unconditional love.

Whip up some home cooking.  No matter how often you go out to eat, try cutting back.  And that includes everything from dinner at a restaurant with friends to grabbing a muffin in the morning.  Doing so will likely decrease your sodium intake more than twofold.  The majority of restaurant meals contain more that 2,000 mg sodium, almost as much as you should have in a day.  Many have more than 5,000-6,000 mg sodium!  Aim for meals that have about 600-800 mg sodium each, so you can keep you totals in line with recommendations of about 2,000-2,500 mg/day.

Eat more vegetables!  I know.  Every month you hear this from me.  But adding even one more serving per day can impact your heart.  According to the literature, you may be able to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by up to 13% for each daily 1 cup serving of vegetables consumed!

Go bananas.  Upping your intake of potassium-packed foods acts as a counter punch to the blood-pressure raising effects of sodium.  The reason: the more potassium you eat, the more sodium your body excretes.  Most of us consume 2,000-2,300 mg of potassium day, but that’s only about half of what we need.  It’s not hard to find foods rich in potassium, but the fact is we’re simply not eating enough of them.  Other good sources include sweet potatoes, black beans, and edamame.

Holly Pevzner