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8 Steps to a Healthy Heart

Jun 1 2021
7 min read
Older man climbing on outdoor fitness equipment.

Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly 1.5 million heart attacks and strokes occur every year and more than 800,000 people in the United States die from cardiovascular disease each year — that's one in every three deaths. There is good news, however, as you can drastically reduce your risk by incorporating healthy habits. Here are eight preventive strategies to try:

Heart Helper 1: Manage Stress

There is no magic wand to eliminate all the stress in your life. There will always be pressures big and small, such as bosses giving you deadlines, kids fraying your nerves, and traffic jams disrupting your best laid travel plans. But when stress constantly simmers in your life, it can cause inflammation in your coronary arteries, leading to blood clots. Your body can’t differentiate between the chronic low-grade stress of your harried lifestyle and a life-threatening situation…which fatigues your heart over many decades.

Stress-management techniques can alter your physiological response to stressful situations, speeding up how quickly you recover from the heart-pumping, adrenaline-surging, high-alert state that characterizes your body’s fight-or-flight stress response.

Consider spending 10 to 15 minutes sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing, taking a yoga class twice a week, or scheduling a monthly massage. All the better if you can do these kinds of activities in the morning, because they can set your intention to be calmer, more present, and less rushed for the rest of the day. If the AM doesn’t work for you, don’t worry: Any time of day is helpful, and the more often you do it, the better.

Heart Helper 2: Make Sleep a Priority

You may think of a good night’s sleep as a luxury, but it’s actually a critical component of heart health. When you are sleep deprived, your body releases stress hormones that can cause inflammation and constrict arteries.

A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that each extra hour of rest that sleep-deprived, middle-aged adults add to their nightly average can reduce their risk of heart disease by about a third. Experts recommend aiming for seven to nine hours of sleep each night. (The benefits don’t extend beyond nine hours a night, so no need to hibernate. If you consistently need more than nine hours to be rested, you might be getting fragmented sleep; talk to your doctor so he or she can rule out a sleep disorder.) If you’re having trouble getting to sleep, or staying asleep once you’ve drifted off, there are some effective techniques you can use to bank more shuteye.

Heart Helper 3: Add Colorful Produce to Every Plate

Vibrantly-hued fruits and vegetables, such as blueberries, tomatoes, and peppers, are loaded with antioxidants, which have an anti-inflammatory effect on your blood vessels. Other fruit, like bananas and melon, are also high in potassium to help your body excrete sodium. Sodium raises your blood volume, so when you eliminate it efficiently, it takes some strain off of your heart. According to dietary guidelines, most adults need two cups of fruit and two-and-a-half to three cups of vegetables each day. To put that in perspective, one cup is roughly the equivalent to one large ear of corn, a small apple, or a large orange. Half a cup is about 16 grapes, four large strawberries, or five broccoli florets.

Heart Helper 4: Enjoy Some Sunshine

In addition to helping your body absorb calcium to boost bone density, vitamin D benefits your heart. Studies show that when you’re deficient in vitamin D, your risk of peripheral arterial disease — plaque build-up in the arteries that carry blood to your head, organs, and limbs — rises by as much as 80 percent.

Adults should take in about 600 IU of vitamin D each day. In addition to getting it from dairy products (a cup of non-fat milk has 120 IU) and fish (three ounces of salmon has 450 IU), or dietary supplements, you produce vitamin D when you’re exposed to sunlight. Aim for 10 to 15 minutes a day before applying sunscreen.

Heart Helper 5: Focus on Fiber

A fiber-rich diet has many benefits, including promoting bowel health and stabilizing blood sugar levels. But you may not know that it’s also been linked to heart health.

In a Harvard study of more than 40,000 health professionals, researchers found that a diet high in fiber was linked to a 40 percent lower risk of coronary heart disease, compared to a low fiber intake. Fiber helps reduce low density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol levels. Aim for 25 to 35 g of fiber a day. Good sources include whole grain breads, beans, vegetables, wheat bran, and oats.

Heart Helper 6: Serve up Seafood

Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation that can damage blood vessels and lead to heart disease throughout your body. Eating a couple of servings of fish high in omega-3s each week can reduce your risk of death from a heart attack by about a third. To minimize your exposure to mercury, limit your consumption of seafood to 12 ounces a week and choose fish that are low in toxins, such as anchovies, sardines, salmon, and shrimp. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch is a trustworthy resource for more information on seafood safety.

Heart Helper 7: Get Your Heart Pumping with Cardio

When you exercise aerobically — jogging, cycling, hiking, playing tennis, whatever activity you enjoy — you strengthen your heart. A fit heart doesn’t need to beat as fast, and it pumps blood more efficiently, which reduces wear and tear on this important muscle and improves blood flow throughout your body.

Aerobic exercise also boosts your high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good”) cholesterol and lowers your LDL cholesterol, which minimizes plaque build-up in your arteries. Do your best to log at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise most days of the week.

Heart Helper 8: Choose Healthy Fats

Trans fats, which are found in cookies, doughnuts, crackers, and other processed foods, increase the amount of artery-clogging LDL in your body. (Shopping tip: The word “hydrogenated” on the ingredient list signals that a food contains trans fats).

Limit your intake of these foods and focus on consuming healthy unsaturated fats like avocados, walnuts, and olive oil, which have been shown to reduce LDL levels and also to regulate blood clotting — both which improve your heart health.