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Top 6 habits for heart health

February is American Heart Month so we’re taking a closer look at all the ways to make sure your heart stays healthy. It’s never too early start taking care of your ticker and doing so is easier than you think. Here are a few key health habits to start now that will help improve not only your cardiovascular system, but your overall health, too.t

Woman doing fitness drills

We asked Dr. Wayne Andersen, board-certified physician and bestselling author of Dr. A’s Habits of Health, for his top tips for helping ensure your heart stays healthy.

If you smoke, stop

If you haven’t already, now is the time to butt out. “The negative impact of tobacco and smoking dwarfs all of the risks to your heart,” Andersen says. “Toxic chemicals produced by smoking lead to narrowing of your arteries, which increases both blood pressure and heart rate, and lowers your supply of oxygen, as your heart has to work harder after being exposed to harmful agents,” he explains. Quitting is the only option if you want to have a healthy heart. The good news is that your body has the inherent capacity to heal itself and can recover significantly within as little as one year.

Increase daily activity

Get moving if you want to make heart health a priority. “Increasing your daily activity in both work and leisure is the most direct method for lowering your risk of dying of heart disease,” says Andersen. Throw in a 30-minute period of more intense exercise such as running, interval training or swimming four to five days a week and you will significantly increase the health benefit to your heart, he explains. “This level of exercise helps prevent heart disease and strokes, as well as diabetes, which increases the risk to your heart. Regular exercise will also lower high blood pressure and reduce inflammation, another key contributor to heart disease.” By choosing the stairs over the elevator, standing rather than sitting, using a rake for the leaves rather than the blower or simply opening our cans with a can opener, you are moving more and having a small but positive effect on our heart health.

Practice portion control

Maintaining a healthy weight doesn’t just mean fitting into your skinny jeans. A 10 percent reduction in your weight lowers your risk of heart disease by 50 percent, explains Andersen. “Use a plate system similar to the one recently adopted by the USDA to help you decrease your caloric intake and create a healthy balance of fruits, vegetables, protein and carbohydrates,” he says. “Beyond the quantity of calories consumed, the ingestion of animal fats, high-glycemic sugary substances, charred food and salty processed food all have a negative impact on your heart by raising cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure and inflammatory markers, eventually leading to heart disease,” he says.

Eat healthy fats

Andersen advises lowering your daily fat intake to less than 20 to 25 percent, with less than 7 percent coming from saturated fats. “Eliminating all trans-fats should be a priority, so dump the deep-fried fast foods, bakery products, packaged snack foods, margarine and crackers,” he says. “Also, reduce red meats, dairy products (except low-fat) and avoid coconut and palm oils completely.” He advises increasing your intake of monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, canola oil and omega-3s from sources like salmon and mackerel, flaxseed oil and soybean oil.

Get enough sleep

The amount and quality of your sleep is a critical component to heart health. Andersen cites a large study of 71,000 female nurses which found that women who sleep fewer than five hours a night were 45 percent more likely to have heart problems and those who slept six hours were at a 20 percent higher risk than those who slept seven or more. On top of that, missing out on your rest causes a whole host of other problems. “A lack of quality sleep increases your risk of weight gain, immunity problems and raises your inflammatory markers, which directly increase a risk to your heart health. Ideally, most people need at least six to seven hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep each and every night,” he explains.

Quick tip

One way to ensure better rest is to avoid drinking coffee after noon, the physician says. “It has a half-life of six hours, which means that a three o’clock candy bar and cup of coffee will still be circulating at effective levels in your brain by bedtime, not allowing you to drop into sleep.”

Think healthy

Chill out for the sake of your heart. “When we are experiencing stress and emotional dysfunction, our heart is at increased risk,” says Andersen. “From inflammation to raising our blood pressure, we are not designed to be connected 24/7 to an electronic chain of email, TVs, smartphones and iPads. Every now and then, you need to let your mind unwind and disconnect from your busy workday and other obligations,” he advises. Get a massage, do some yoga, take a warm bath, make your home warm and cozy – whatever helps you relax and forget about daily stress.

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