I know all about heart disease—more than I’d like to know, in fact. My grandfather died of a heart attack when he was only 63. And my dad had a minor heart attack in his early 60s and has had chest pain land him in hospital emergency rooms more than a few times. I know I’m genetically at risk. It’s a big part of the reason I exercise almost every day and center my diet on fresh produce, whole grains and lean meats while avoiding (to my chagrin, I might add) ice cream and butter.
Is it enough? Well, maybe. But I could be doing more, and so could you. Reducing our risk of cardiovascular disease doesn’t require taking statin drugs to lower cholesterol or popping aspirin daily. Plenty of natural and noninvasive methods can help us reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease—still the No. 1 killer of both men and women in the United States. Follow these 10 tips to improve your heart’s health.
1. Cut your exposure to secondhand smoke.
“Most people understand secondhand smoke is bad, but most people don’t realize how bad,” says Michael Blaha, assistant professor of cardiology and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a cardiologist at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease. The latest research shows that people who expose themselves to secondhand smoke have a higher risk of heart disease than people with high cholesterol.
What Should You Do? It’s not enough not to smoke. If you live with someone who smokes, help her quit. If you have friends who smoke, ask them not to light up when you’re around. And don’t hang out in restaurants or bars that allow smoking.
2. Move more; sit less.
Thirty minutes of aerobic exercise a day isn’t going to be as preventive of heart disease as you may think if you sit in front of a computer all day, Blaha says. “It’s not only how much you exercise but how little you sit,” he says. “People who exercise some but sit a lot are at higher risk than those who continuously move throughout the day.”
What Should You Do? This doesn’t mean if you sit at your desk all day, it’s not doing you any good to go to the gym after work; it just means you should try to add more movement throughout your day. Take a walk at lunchtime, take frequent breaks that require you to get up and move around, walk to a colleague’s office to get a question answered rather than emailing, and take the stairs instead of the elevator.
3. Reduce your stress load.
Sure, you’ve heard it before, but the impact of stress on the heart (and all bodily organs, in fact) shouldn’t be overlooked. “I’ve seen people come into my office with pseudo heart pain,” says Carl Amodio of Whole Body Health in Roswell, Georgia. “They aren’t having a heart attack, but emotional stress has given them heart symptoms. Our emotions affect us at a cellular level. It’s the piece a lot of doctors often overlook.”
What Should You Do? To start with, practice saying “no.” You don’t have to do everything. Make time for yourself that promotes relaxation and stress release, whether that’s daily cardio, a hot bath, meditation or a walk in the woods. Do something every day that pampers your emotional well-being. Learn more about the value of prioritizing relaxation in Reclaiming a Day of Rest.
4. Eat a Mediterranean diet.
“One of the biggest developments in cardiovascular research is that the Mediterranean diet is the most heart-healthy,” Blaha says. Fortunately, the Mediterranean diet—which focuses on fish, fresh vegetables, healthy fats and whole grains—is also by far the most palatable of the heart-healthy diets, so it’s easier for people to stick to it. The diet’s emphasis on monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (think olive oil), fish (a great source of omega-3 fatty acids), lean meats, fresh produce and nuts is key. “Tree nuts, in particular, are extremely heart-healthy,” Blaha says. “They have healthy fats and are full of fiber, so they’re satiating. They also have anti-inflammatory properties.”
What Should You Do? Cook with healthy oils such as olive and safflower oil; cut down on red meat and replace it with fish; add more fresh veggies to your meals; skip processed foods; keep fresh fruit on hand for snacks; eat more whole grains and beans; and next time you want to reach for a handful of M&M’s, grab a handful of almonds or walnuts instead.
5. Drink wine.
It may seem too good to be true, but a glass of wine a day will reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Just don’t overindulge. Red wine is best, and moderate (and healthy) consumption generally consists of one glass a day for women and two for men.
What Should You Do? Have a glass before dinner. Not only will you be doing your heart a favor, but you might find yourself eating less, as well. With about 100 calories a glass, red wine relaxes stomach muscles and can help us feel full. A 2010 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that women who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol were less likely to gain weight in middle age. Plus, drinking alcohol too close to bedtime could interrupt sleep patterns and keep you from getting the good rest necessary to reduce stress.
6. Monitor your non-HDL cholesterol.
A new study out of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine shows that doctors’ traditional method for calculating LDL (what we know as “bad”) cholesterol levels may be inaccurate. Researchers, Blaha among them, discovered current measuring techniques underestimate patients’ risk for heart disease. Doctors should measure patients’ total non-HDL (“good” cholesterol) number, which includes LDL as well as VLDL (very low-density lipoprotein), which are other plaque-causing cholesterol particles.
What Should You Do? If you have reason to be concerned about your cholesterol levels due to genetic or environmental risk factors, ask your doctor how she is figuring your cholesterol numbers. Ask not just for LDL numbers but the total non-HDL numbers, as well. Doctors recommend keeping your non-HDL cholesterol under 120 to prevent heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends all adults get their cholesterol checked every five years.
7. Add soy to your diet.
Registered dietitian Sharon Palmer, author of The Plant-Powered Diet, says studies have shown regular soy consumption reduces heart-disease risk. In fact, a study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation showed that populations that historically consume more soy protein have less incidence of heart disease. In Japan, for example, where soy is a regular part of the diet, cardiovascular-disease risk is half what it is in the United States. If recent news headlines have you worried that soy is bad for your health (i.e., that it increases your risk of breast cancer), rest easy. The isoflavones in soy that bind to estrogen receptors in the body and can mimic estrogen’s effects are not nearly as strong as animal-based estrogen. In fact, human estrogen is more than 1,000 times stronger. Opt for traditional soy foods such as tofu and tempeh over more heavily processed versions or supplements.
What Should You Do? Have a serving a day as food. It’s pretty easy. Use soy milk in coffee or a smoothie, eat a handful of roasted edamame for a snack, or add tofu to a salad or casserole.
8. Boost your fiber intake.
Most Americans get only 12 to 18 grams of fiber per day, even though the FDA recommends 25 to 38, says Keri Glassman, author of The New You (and Improved!) Diet: 8 Rules to Lose Weight and Change Your Life Forever and a regular guest on The Today Show. Studies show that fiber lowers LDL cholesterol while also helping us feel fuller longer, meaning we eat less and are less likely to put on excess weight, which increases heart disease risk.
What Should You Do? Increasing your dietary fiber is easier than you might think. Glassman suggests eating a high-fiber breakfast of oatmeal or whole-grain cereal; making sure your lunch sandwich is on whole-wheat or sprouted grain bread (and enjoy it with an apple); and making whole grains for dinner with a side of asparagus, or sprinkling breaded chicken or fish with an unflavored fiber supplement. For a snack, get more fiber by eating almonds, berries, or (yes!) popcorn. (Avoid conventional microwave popcorn; the bags contain chemicals that, when heated, break down into the likely carcinogen perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. Instead pop popcorn in a skillet or air popper, or microwave it in plain brown paper bags.)
9. Focus more on fitness and less on weight.
People have a misconception that being overweight is bad and that being thin is good when it comes to cardiovascular disease risk, Blaha says. Many people who are trying to lose weight give up on exercise because they’re not seeing the pounds come off right away. “But physical fitness is more important than your weight,” he says. “You’re doing wonders for your body, even when you’re not losing weight right off the bat.”
What Should You Do? It’s better to be fit than to be skinny. When you exercise, focus on the fact that you’re doing the right thing for your long-term health rather than worrying about the numbers on the scale. If you wish to lose weight, regular exercise will eventually help you do that. In the meantime, you’re increasing the health of your heart with cardiovascular exercise.
10. Get tested for the Coxsackie B virus.
If you think you’re not at risk for heart disease because you’re young and physically fit, think again. You know those young athletes you hear of who have died of a heart attack while playing sports? Oftentimes, those deaths can be attributed to viral myocarditis, which is caused primarily by the Coxsackie B virus. “I’ve seen Coxsackie B in all ages and genders,” Amodio says. “It’s a very common virus that is not often screened for.” Amodio says the virus goes away on its own in many people, but for those whose immune systems don’t get rid of it, it can often invade the heart. Infected people may experience shortness of breath or palpitations, yet their doctors may find no evidence of heart attack or cardiovascular disease. “It needs to be incorporated into screening for patients with a suspected heart condition,” Amodio says. “I screen everyone who comes into my office.”
What Should You Do? If you’re experiencing cardiovascular disease-type symptoms and your doctor or cardiologist can’t seem to find the cause, ask for a Coxsackie B screening.
Deborah Huso writes frequently on health, fitness and nutrition, and formerly covered the cardiovascular health beat for AOL Health. She has also written for Women’s Health, Military Offficer, A Garden Life and USA Today magazines, and is a contributing editor for The Progressive Farmer.