With an estimated 17.9 million lives taken each year, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally. An estimated 4 out of 5 cardiovascular deaths are from heart attack and stroke, and one-third of these are premature deaths in people under the age of 70.
But you don’t have to be another statistic. While genetics play a major role in heart disease, there are risk factors that you can take control of. Certain daily habits like eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and reducing stress can keep your heart happy and healthy.
Your heart is the most important muscle in your body. It works hard to pump blood and oxygen to all of your organs. So, you should take extra good care of your heart by adopting good habits and knowing the signs of poor heart health.
Here’s what you can do to have a healthy heart…
A heart-healthy diet includes a variety of fruits and veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats.
While red meat may seem like a good source of protein, it’s high in sodium and saturated fat which can raise blood pressure and blood sugar and increase your risk of heart disease. Choose protein-rich, plant-based foods like lentils, tempeh, tofu, and chickpeas. The nutrients in plant-based proteins can help to lower cholesterol and blood pressure and keep you at a healthy weight.
Eat your fruits and veggies! Leafy greens like kale, spinach, and bok choy have lots of vitamin K which helps to keep the structure of the heart strong. Niacin in leafy greens relaxes arteries and veins which improves blood flow and lowers heart stress. Lots of veggies and fruits such as blueberries, kiwi, oranges, bell peppers, and broccoli contain high amounts of vitamin C. Vitamin C works as an antioxidant in your body which reduces the buildup of plaque in the arteries.
The consumption of whole grains is linked to lowered blood pressure and blood sugar and can shrink your waistline. Eating just 25 grams of whole grains a day reduces the risk of heart disease by about 15%. Swap out the white bread and white rice for wheat bread and brown rice. Try baking with whole meal flour instead of refined white flour and experiment with new grains like quinoa, farro, and millet. And for a double punch of heart-healthy foods, start your day with a bowl of oatmeal topped with some vitamin C-rich blueberries.
Limit your intake of saturated fats which come from animal sources like cheese, butter, and fatty meats. Eat lots of foods with omega-3 fatty acids like chia seeds, avocado, and dark chocolate. Taking a plant-based omega-3 supplement is also a great way to get a good dose of healthy fats into your diet.
Avoid foods high in sodium and added sugars and limit your consumption of alcohol. Of course, it’s okay to allow yourself an indulgence now and then. A margarita or a bowl of popcorn won’t completely wreck a healthy diet. What’s important is that you eat healthy foods the majority of the time.
Besides helping to keep you at a healthy weight, regular exercise improves cholesterol levels, reduces blood pressure and inflammation, and improves vascular relaxation. It also reduces mental stress which in turn reduces the amount of stress put on your heart.
Every time you’re physically active, your body releases endorphins, those wonderful mood-boosting chemicals that make you feel happy. Exercise also lowers your body’s production of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Both the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and the American Heart Association recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise spread throughout the week.
Some examples of moderate-intensity activities are going for a brisk walk, biking through a flat landscape, dancing, relaxed swimming, and doubles tennis. Examples of vigorous aerobic activity are hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack, jumping rope, cycling at a speed of at least 10mph, singles tennis, swimming laps, and running.
To help keep exercise a part of your daily life, find activities that you enjoy. Even gardening is considered to be a low-intensity aerobic activity!
A long daily commute, relationship issues, or a heavy workload are just a few of the things that can cause constant stress. Stress has been connected to a multitude of health issues including depression, anxiety, diabetes, and you guessed it…heart problems.
Here are a few things you can do to cope with stress…
We’ve already talked about this a bit so we won’t spend too much time on this one. But studies have shown that exercising regularly, whether it be a leisurely swim or a long high-paced run, releases mood-boosting chemicals and lowers stress. So get moving!
Family and friends are important. Spending time with and talking to people you feel close to and trust can improve mental and physical health by releasing oxytocin, a natural stress-relieving chemical.
Many studies have shown that people with a strong social network live longer and recover fast and more thoroughly after a major health event.
Your blood pressure lowers during sleep, allowing your heart to relax just a bit and your body to restore. People who get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night have improved concentration, sharpened judgment, and better decision-making skills, all of which can lead to lower levels of stress.
Put your phone down and turn off the TV. Take time each day, even just 10 to 15 minutes, to escape from the world and try to completely relax. Listen to music, meditate, pray, or just take deep, slow breaths. Studies show that taking just a few minutes out of your day to sit quietly and just be can lower blood pressure and even cause your brain to release more of those chemicals that make you feel happy and calm and more able to deal with things that might be causing you stress.
Laughter has been shown to lower levels of stress hormones, reduce arterial inflammation, and even increase HDL (good) cholesterol by increasing oxygen levels in your body. Laughter also relieves tension by relaxing your muscles and lowering your stress response.
So spend time with people who make you laugh, watch a funny movie, or even learn to laugh at yourself and those silly little mistakes that you’ll inevitably make because you are just an imperfect little human doing your best.
Small, healthy lifestyle changes can play a huge role in keeping your heart healthy. Exercising regularly, eating and sleeping well, and managing stress are all key to cardiovascular health.