Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States. Although you can't change the risks associated with age and family history, there are plenty of steps you can take to improve your health and reduce your chances of heart disease.
Follow these essential tips for a healthier, happier heart.
Exercise and physical activity
One of the best ways to combat heart disease is to get moving. The American Heart Association recommends clocking 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week, which breaks down to about half an hour a day.
If the gym isn't your cup of tea, don't fret. "A combination of aerobic exercise, stretching and weight training is best, but doing what you enjoy is the most important consideration," says Dr. Richard Gelb of MountainStar Heart and Vascular Center. Even a brisk walk around the neighborhood can do the trick.
The key is to get your heart rate up and to be consistent. Break up your physical activity throughout the day if you need to. Even 10-minute bursts through the day will provide health benefits.
Balanced diet with heart-healthy foods
Sometimes the toughest pill to swallow isn't our medicine but our food. Fortunately, improving your diet doesn't have to be too painful or restrictive. The key is balance and moderation. With the right diet, you can reduce your risk for heart disease and diabetes (which often go hand-in-hand).
"While some advocate extreme diets for heart disease prevention, there is little evidence of benefit," advises Gelb. "Drastic dietary changes are difficult to sustain. I recommend a balanced diet high in protein, greens, and other vegetables. Foods to avoid include sugar, highly processed foods and most fast food."
Dr. Rondal Asay, with the MountainStar Heart and Vascular Center in Orem, explains some beneficial diets like Pritikin or even South Beach are difficult to sustain, even for highly motivated individuals.
"These are high-protein low-carb diets. Plant-based/vegetarian diets also have strong advocates and demonstrated benefits and are lower in protein and higher in carbs, mostly complex carbs," Asay says. "The commonality in all of these diets is low calorie and lots of fruits and vegetables, and if meat is eaten that it be lean, preferably fish."
Besides balancing your diet with healthy proteins and vegetables, be sure to reduce your sodium as well as saturated and trans fats emphasizes The Heart Foundation. Salt can increase blood pressure and unhealthy fats can lead to clogged arteries — a bad combination for your heart.
Healthy lifestyle habits
In addition to improving your diet and exercise routine, pay attention to other lifestyle habits. For a heart-healthy lifestyle, you should
- Reduce alcohol consumption
- Quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke
- Manage long-term stress
- Monitor your weight and metabolism as you age
Reducing alcohol consumption can help you manage your blood pressure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women to promote heart-healthy living.
Although the exact connection between stress and heart health isn't clear, long-term or chronic stress is associated with a higher risk for heart disease. Too much stress can increase your heart rate and blood pressure. Over time, this can damage the artery walls and compound other risk factors.
To avoid this, pay attention to your mental health and stress levels. Adopt stress-relieving habits or strategies such as meditation, deep breathing exercises or more frequent breaks at work or at home to recharge and rejuvenate.
Finally, maintain a healthy body weight. Excess weight puts more strain on your heart, which has to work harder and increases your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. This will be especially important over time as your metabolism slows down with age.
Heart-healthy habits like a good diet and regular exercise can help you stay on track. Keep in mind that your body will need fewer calories as you get older, so pay attention to how your body evolves and adapt your routine as needed.
You're never too old or too young to start thinking about your health. If you have a family history of heart disease, work with your primary physician to create a strategy for prevention and risk management.
No matter where you are in your health journey, "The foundation of heart health must include abstinence from tobacco, a healthy diet, and regular physical activity," urges Dr. Andrew Behunin of the Heart Center at St. Mark's. And for those at higher genetic risk, "There are proven treatments for the prevention of heart disease and stroke, like aspirin and statin medications, that are well tolerated, readily available, and affordable."
Start taking steps today to a heart-healthy life. For best results, be sure to talk to a doctor, like those at MountainStar Healthcare, for additional tips and recommendations catered to you.