What your pants size, your dog, and even your visits to the dentist have to do with keeping your ticker healthy.
Credit: Roger Harris/Getty Images

Roger Harris/Getty ImagesWe know, youve heard all this heart-health stuff before: Get your cholesterol down. Take that Spinning class. Order the salmon. Yawn. But there are some things you may not have heard about how to keep this marvelous muscle going strong: Check your waistband. Pay attention to your pregnancies. Dont skip date night. Intrigued? Check out the latest ways to show your heart some love.

You know: to eat right and keep your weight down.

You maybe didnt know: Were not just talking about nixing marbled steak and trans-fat-filled fries. Its also about blood sugar, says Nieca Goldberg, MD, director of the New York University Womens Heart Program and a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association. Your body responds to high blood sugar by pumping out more insulin to try to turn that sugar into energy. "Too much insulin raises your triglycerides and causes inflammation of the arteries, making them more vulnerable to hardening," Dr. Goldberg explains.

Do this: In addition to choosing a diet low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol, eat lots of fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, says Nakela Cook, MD, MPH, medical officer at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Also, go easy on sweets and refined carbs, which can send blood sugar and insulin levels soaring. The American Heart Association recommends having just 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day.

You know: to snub out those ciggies for good.

You maybe didnt know: Your husbands habit could hurt your heart, too. Nonsmokers who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or at work have a 25 to 30% higher risk of heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Do this: If you smoke, quit any way you can and put the tobacco cash toward a trip to Cancun to celebrate the end of your first smoke-free year—by then, youll have cut your heart disease risk in half, Dr. Goldberg says. (In 15 years, youll have the same risk as someone whos never smoked.) Or use that beach outing to bribe a loved one who smokes—when they call it quits, youll both benefit.

You know: to move your heinie.

You maybe didnt know: You dont have to be a lunatic about it. To cut your risk of heart attack and stroke by 35 to 50%, all you need is 30 minutes, five times a week, Dr. Goldberg says. You can even break that half-hour into three 10-minute intervals. Want to work out more? Youll give your HDL ("good") cholesterol an extra boost—and burn more calories, of course.

Do this: Anything that gets you breathing a bit heavily, that you enjoy, and that youll do consistently. Brisk walking, raking, or shoveling are all good, Dr. Goldberg says: "The important thing is to move, and do it regularly."

Next Page: Know your background [ pagebreak ]
You know: to pump your mom for your familys health history.

You maybe didnt know: Your own pregnancy, if youve had one, can be a crystal ball into the future of your hearts health. Women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)—who may have had difficulty getting pregnant—or those who had gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, or high blood pressure while pregnant have a tendency toward high triglycerides and insulin resistance, making their arteries more vulnerable to plaque buildup, Dr. Goldberg explains.

Do this: In addition to your parents and grandparents histories, tell your doctor about what happened when you were pregnant.
You know: to stay on top of your numbers.

You maybe didnt know: In addition to blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, another number—your waist circumference—is linked to your risk of heart disease, as well as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. Not that youd welcome extra weight on your butt or hips, either, but experts believe that abdominal fat is particularly evil because it may release excess fatty acids (which could contribute to insulin problems and plaque buildup) or hormones that promote inflammation (which can do a number on your arteries).

Do this: Set a weight-loss goal of getting your waist measurement to below 35 inches, rather than getting into your high school jeans.

You know: to chill out.

You maybe didnt know: A high level of stress doesnt just strain your heart and raise blood pressure—it makes other risk factors for heart disease worse. "When youre stressed, you have to mobilize energy sources fast, and your brain sends information to the liver to release stored sugar into the bloodstream," Dr. Goldberg explains. "If youre constantly stressed, you keep your blood sugar and insulin levels high, which can lead to the development of belly fat," raising your risk for heart disease. Whats more, she says, "If your blood sugar remains so high from stress that your cells cant filter it, the membrane on the cell becomes less responsive," and you process what you eat even less efficiently. Youre on an upward spiral to weight gain, high triglycerides, and—all together now!—clogged arteries.

Do this: Find ways to combat your stress, whether its yoga, long walks on the beach, or watching absurd housewives of a place youve never been to.

Next Page: The major risks [ pagebreak ]
You know: the big risk factors for heart disease, like obesity, high cholesterol, smoking, and diabetes.

You maybe didnt know: Seemingly unrelated problems, like depression and rheumatoid arthritis (RA), might also up your risk. Research is ongoing, but patients who have RA may have as much as twice the risk of heart attackand stroke, Dr. Cook says. And women with depression may have a heart disease risk greater than that of women who arent depressed.

Do this: If you have RA or are depressed, ask your doctor if you should be watched extra closely for heart disease.


Pier/Getty ImagesCould it be a heart attack?
Every random ping isnt cause for alarm. Lisa J. Young, MD, a cardiologist at the Sutherland Cardiology Clinic in Memphis, tells you what to watch out for.

Probably not a heart attack:
• Chest pain that moves from one spot to another, or a knife-like pain you can pinpoint.
• Pain thats lasted more than an hour, without sweatiness or shortness of breath, especially if youre able to walk around.
• Palpitations without any other symptoms.

Get to the doctor if you feel:
• Pressure or tightness—like an elephant on your chest.
• An abrupt drop in energy or in your ability to exercise.
• Pain in your neck, jaw, back, arm, or shoulder that comes on when you exercise.
• Light-headedness, sweating, shortness of breath, and/or nausea. When in doubt, call your doctor or 911.
Next Page: More heart quick hits [ pagebreak ]


Alena HrbkovaPump up the power of chocolate
Who hasnt used the famed heart-healthy power of dark chocolate as an excuse to nosh? Boost the benefits of your sweet treat by pairing it with blueberries. While berries of all kinds are often touted for their cancer-fighting might, the antioxidant-rich fruit may also help protect your ticker. You can get your fix even when blueberries are out of season with Pure Dark Chocolate Covered Blueberries ($14; puredark.com).

Say "aah!"
Women who have been to the dentist in the past two years reduce their risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems by at least one-third, a recent study suggests.

How love helps your ticker
Friend love—Having good pals is associated with lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Pet love—Pet owners live longer after a heart attack than those who dont have little critters to tend to.
Romantic love—Women who had hugs from their sweeties had lower blood pressure in one study; on the other hand, people in marriages with a lot of strife may be at a higher risk for heart disease. And losing a spouse (and other sudden emotional blows) can even trigger what feels like (but isnt really) a heart attack—its known as "broken heart" syndrome.