8 Ways To Keep Your Heart Healthy

The health of your heart is largely dependent on lifestyle changes—here's what you can do.

As of 2022, heart disease remained the leading cause of death for people in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While some factors like genetics may make you more prone to heart disease, the best way to avoid cardiac (or heart) issues is to take good care of your heart health. Many risk factors can be modified or controlled, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

"Lifestyle is huge with your heart health," Holly S. Andersen, MD, an attending cardiologist and associate professor of clinical medicine at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center, told Health. "It's more important than genetics." Dr. Andersen's statement hits the nail on the head: The AHA estimates that 80% of cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease and stroke, can be prevented.

Jennifer Haythe, MD, associate professor of medicine in cardiology at the Center for Advanced Cardiac Care, associate director of the adult pulmonary hypertension program, and director of the cardio-obstetrics program at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, agreed. "A lot of heart disease is preventable," Dr. Haythe told Health. "If people take care of their heart in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, they won't need to see a cardiologist for most of their life."

So what exactly can you do to get a clean bill of cardiac health? Here are some tips on modifying your routine to keep your heart healthy as you age.

Exercise Most Days of the Week

The AHA recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise weekly. Can't swing that? You can work out harder for a shorter period of time: The AHA also says that 75 minutes a week of "vigorous aerobic activity" or a combination of moderate and intense exercise works, too.

Keep in mind, the AHA recommends spreading your exercise throughout the week vs. trying to jam it all into one or two days. "Physical activity is the fountain of youth," said Dr. Andersen. "It makes your cardiovascular system more efficient." If squeezing in an actual workout every day is challenging, Dr. Andersen recommended aiming to do something "to get your heart rate up" every day. (Walking counts, by the way.)

Keep Your Blood Pressure in a Good Range

Annual physicals are there for a reason. Your healthcare provider can check you for heart disease symptoms and stay on top of your blood pressure, said Dr. Haythe. Knowing your blood pressure is incredibly crucial. There are no specific symptoms of high blood pressure (medically known as hypertension), but having uncontrolled blood pressure can lead to heart disease, the CDC says. If you and your healthcare provider are on top of your blood pressure, you can take steps to fix it if it starts to creep up.

If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, it's important to follow your healthcare provider's recommendations. Your healthcare provider may advise you to make some changes to your lifestyle or put you on medication. If you are prescribed medication, make sure to take it consistently. And you may also want to empower yourself by getting an at-home blood pressure cuff so you can monitor your blood pressure regularly.

Look Into Your Diet

Diet is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle. While the Mediterranean diet gets a lot of airplay for its emphasis on healthy fats and fresh ingredients, the AHA and MedlinePlus also name-check the DASH diet as good for heart health.

If you're unfamiliar with it, the DASH diet is an eating plan based on research from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). DASH stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension. MedlinePlus cites research showing that a DASH diet lowers high blood pressure and improves cholesterol, reducing your risk of heart disease. The DASH diet generally follows many of the same guidelines as the Mediterranean diet but allows for more dairy products and meat.

However, there is a good reason the Mediterranean diet gets so much attention. It has the most evidence supporting this eating style for reducing the risk of cardiovascular events. For example, a study of 7447 participants published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2018 found that people at high risk of cardiovascular disease who followed a Mediterranean diet were less likely to have a major cardiovascular event than those who ate a reduced-fat diet.

The Mediterranean diet encourages you to consume and limit the following foods, according to the AHA:

  • Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and pulses or legumes.
  • Include lots of healthy fats in your diet. Pour on the extra virgin olive oil! Avocados, seeds, and nuts are also good sources of healthy fats.
  • Enjoy these foods in moderation: low-fat or fat-free dairy products, eggs, and poultry.
  • Have low to moderate amounts of fish. Fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. Plus, with the large variety of seafood, you'll have many options for mealtime. Also, look into sustainably caught or farmed fish.
  • Wine is OK in low to moderate amounts, preferably with meals.
  • Limit sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets. For example, reach for fruit instead of sugary desserts.
  • Cut back on red meat. Go for fish or poultry instead.
  • Try to cut out processed foods. Minimally processed, plant-based foods are better choices than highly processed foods like chips and processed meats.

Assess Your Weight

Maintaining a healthy weight for your heart is like finding the Goldilocks zone. Being underweight may put you at risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to a 2017 study published in Medicine (Baltimore). This study defined underweight as a body mass index (BMI) below 18.5 kg/m2.

While the study uses Body Mass Index (BMI) to measure the degree of obesity, BMI is a dated, flawed measure. It does not consider factors such as body composition, ethnicity, sex, race, and age. Even though it is a biased measure, BMI is still widely used in the medical community because it's an inexpensive and quick way to analyze a person's potential health status and outcomes.

Being overweight or obese can increase your heart disease risk as well. In a 2021 Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association published in the journal Circulation, the authors wrote that obesity contributes directly to cardiovascular risk factors, including dyslipidemia, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and sleep disorders. Obesity also leads to the development of cardiovascular disease and death from cardiovascular disease independently of other cardiovascular risk factors.

However, the authors wrote obesity is a heterogeneous condition. Overall, body fat mass does not alone make a person more susceptible to obesity-related cardiovascular complications. Individual differences in regional body fat distribution also affect heart health.

People with obesity may see several heart health benefits from reducing overall body fat mass. Exercise and dietary changes (as mentioned above) are some ways to help do so. Remember that it is always good to check in with your healthcare provider about the right options for you.

Do Your Best To Minimize Stress

Seriously. Stress can be tough on your heart, but it can also lead to being inactive and overeating, which can cause high blood pressure and high cholesterol, the AHA says. And that can up your risk of heart disease.

Still, it's tough to avoid stress. "We're all so stressed out right now," said Dr. Haythe. "It's hard." Annapoorna Kini, MD, interventional director of the structural heart program at Mount Sinai Hospital, recommended adding meditation and deep breathing exercises to your day—they only take a few minutes.

Don't Smoke

Most people are aware by now that smoking is linked to all kinds of serious health issues. Cigarette smoking raises your blood pressure and puts you at a higher risk of having a heart attack and stroke, Medline Plus points out. "Smoking is bad for the heart and lungs—it's bad in every way," said Dr. Kini. Avoiding smoking is so important that Dr. Haythe noted this is the "single most important thing you can do" to lower your risk of heart disease.

Consider Reserving Alcohol for Special Occasions

There are some confusing messages surrounding alcohol and heart health. A 2017 study published in the AHA journal Circulation suggested that having a glass of red wine a day can lower your risk of dying from heart disease, but there's nothing out there that proves drinking red wine will improve your heart health, according to the AHA. "There's a lot of hype about red wine being good for the heart, but, in general, alcohol is a toxin to the heart," said Dr. Haythe.

That's why Dr. Haythe recommended people try to drink only on special occasions. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that women have no more than one alcoholic drink a day and that men have no more than two drinks a day.

Aim for the Right Amount of Sleep

Everyone's needs are a little different, but the CDC recommends that most adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. Consistently dip below that, and you could be hurting your heart. "Poor sleep has been linked to high blood pressure and can make it difficult to lose weight," said Dr. Andersen. It can also make you less likely to want to exercise, which is not great for your heart.

Sleep is also a good time for your heart to recharge, said Dr. Kini. "When you sleep, your heart rate goes down, your hormones settle down, and you're not under a lot of stress," added Dr. Kini. "It's good for your heart and your overall well-being."

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