Expert Blogs | Heart Health
Lifestyle Habits for a Healthy Heart
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Heading off heart disease is about more than eating particular foods, doing certain exercises, or taking supplements. Several beneficial lifestyle habits work together to help prevent heart problems, even if you take medication for high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol levels. Here are the top 6 ways to keep heart disease at bay.

Follow a plant-based eating plan. Plant foods, such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables, beans, soy, nuts, and seeds, supply fiber and phytonutrients and are rich in potassium and low in sodium, all of which contribute to a heart health. However, a plant-based diet isn’t necessarily vegetarian. It’s possible to include lean meat, poultry, low-fat dairy, eggs, and seafood in a balanced eating plan that’s low in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars and has the right number of calories for weight control. A recent study found that people who consumed a greater variety of protein foods from a combination of plants and animals had an easier time preventing high blood pressure.

Vary your exercise. A combination of aerobic activity and resistance training is best for keeping total blood cholesterol and triglycerides (fat) in check, increasing HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind), and managing blood pressure. Heart-pumping aerobic exercise -- like brisk walking, cycling, and tennis -- strengthens the heart so that it beats less often, minimizing wear and tear. Aerobic exercise also lowers the risk for becoming overweight and developing type 2 diabetes, which play a part in poor heart health. Research shows that low-to-moderate resistance training, such as working out with free weights, weight machines, or with your own body weight or resistance bands, is linked to less heart disease. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise at least five days a week and resistance training on 2 nonconsecutive days of the week.

Avoid cigarette smoke. Quit smoking and stay away from those who do. The chemicals in cigarette smoke promote thicker, less-flexible artery walls, increase blood pressure, and lead to clots in blood vessels that block the flow of blood to the heart, brain, and extremities.  Exposure to secondhand smoke also raises the risk for heart disease, even in people who don’t smoke cigarettes. If you smoke, try to quit. The body starts repairing the damage to your heart and blood vessels as soon as you stop smoking. And, after a year of no cigarettes, the risk for heart attack risk drops significantly.

Get enough sleep. What does sleep have to do with heart health? Plenty.  Adults who sleep less than 7 hours a night may have higher blood pressure, a greater likelihood for high blood glucose levels that could lead to type 2 diabetes, and more unhealthy weight gain.  An ongoing lack of sleep can make you feel hungry during the day by altering the level of hormones that regulate eating satisfaction. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night. Maintain a sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time, even on the weekends.

Drink in moderation, if at all. There’s evidence that moderate alcohol intake benefits the heart and circulation and may protect against type 2 diabetes in many healthy people. However, heavy drinking on a regular basis can boost blood pressure and damage the heart, potentially resulting in heart failure. Moderate alcohol intake is 1 drink or less for women daily and 2 drinks or less for men. A standard drink is defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of regular beer, 8-9 ounces of malt beverage, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits, such as vodka, rum, and gin.  If you’re not a drinker, there’s no need to start to improve your heart health.

Stress less. Chronic mental stress can affect heart health by increasing blood cholesterol levels, making it harder for your body to control blood sugar levels, boosting your blood pressure, and promoting inflammation that results in clogged arteries. Protect your heart by taking some time for yourself every day to relax and get your mind off what’s bothering you. For example, maintain social ties by visiting with or talking to the people you love and trust the most; move more throughout the day, especially outside if possible; and try meditation.   



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Elizabeth Ward, MS, RDN

Elizabeth Ward, MS, RDN

Registered dietitian nutritionist

Elizabeth Ward, MS, RDN, is an award-winning nutrition communicator and dietitian based in Boston. She is the author of several books, including The Menopause Diet Plan, A Natural Guide to Hormones, Health, and Happiness (co-author), and Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy.

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