Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among both men and women in the United States, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Recent data shows that one person dies every 37 seconds in the U.S. from heart disease. About 647,000 Americans die from heart disease each year—that’s one in every four deaths.
Some of the major factors contributing to heart disease include stress, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, smoking and congenital heart defects.
Fortunately, about 80% of cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, are preventable. Meaning, by sticking to a healthy lifestyle you can keep heart ailments at bay for good.
Here are seven surefire tips to keep your ticker in the best shape, according to experts:
#1 Stay physically active.
“Exercise, especially aerobic exercises like running, cycling, dancing or swimming, is essential for optimal cardiovascular health,” says Dr. Amnon Beniaminovitz, a multi board-certfied cardiologist with Manhattan Cardiology. Besides helping you maintain or reach a healthy weight, aerobic exercise helps lower blood pressure, reduce stress, increase HDL and improve blood sugar regulation. In addition, “it promotes positive physiological changes, such as encouraging the heart’s arteries to dilate more readily,” tells Dr. Beniaminovitz. “It also helps your sympathetic nervous system (which controls your heart rate and blood pressure) to be less reactive,” he adds. According to a Harvard Health Publishing report, exercising regularly also helps grow more blood vessels by expanding the network of capillaries. “In turn, muscle cells boost levels of the enzymes that allow them to use oxygen to generate energy. More oxygen-rich blood and more efficient metabolism: it’s the formula that explains why people who exercise regularly enhance their endurance and strength,” it explains. Dr. Beniaminovitz recommends establishing a morning workout routine, ideally lasting 30-40 minutes. Here are three kinds of exercises that are great for your heart health. Other than that, try to keep moving throughout the day as largely a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of developing heart-related issues, even if you workout regularly. So take the stairs, have walking meetings, invest in a standing work station or take a short walk during lunch break. Bottom line: Stay physically active as much as possible.
#2 Load up on whole foods.
Eating mostly whole foods that are free from any kind of additives is crucial for better cardiovascular health. “A heart-healthy diet consists of lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, legumes, eggs, poultry and healthy fats (fatty fish, olive oil, etc.),” says Rachel Berman, registered dietitian and general manager of Verywell. Both Dr. Beniaminovitz and Berman recommend following the Mediterranean Diet. Dr. Beniaminovitz also suggests keeping a food log to help monitor your daily diet and make better food choices. Here are some heart-healthy foods you should eat more often:
- Leafy greens: “Leafy greens like spinach, kale and collard greens are known for their wealth of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. They’re also high in dietary nitrates, which have been shown to reduce blood pressure, decrease arterial stiffness and improve the function of cells lining the blood vessels,” says Dr. Beniaminovitz.
- Nuts and seeds: Walnuts, almonds and seeds are a great source of fiber and micronutrients such as magnesium, copper and manganese. They are also high in fiber and monounsaturated fats.
- Whole grains: Eating whole grains like oats, barley, whole wheat and brown rice is associated with lower cholesterol and systolic blood pressure, as well as a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, notes the cardiologist.
- Avocados: Avocados are high in monounsaturated fats which help lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. “They may also help lower LDL, blood pressure and the risk of metabolic syndrome,” adds the heart specialist.
- Fatty fish: Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which have been studied extensively for their heart-health benefits. “Fatty fish and fish oil are both high in omega-3 fatty acids and may help reduce heart disease risk factors, including blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol,” tells Dr. Beniaminovitz.
- Berries: “Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries are jam-packed with important nutrients that play a key role in maintaining optimal heart health. Eating berries is also linked to a decrease in LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol, systolic blood pressure and certain markers of inflammation,” says Dr. Beniaminovitz.
- Tomatoes: Tomatoes are rich in lycopene and potassium. Research shows that lycopene helps lower LDL and keep blood from clotting, which lowers the risk of stroke. While potassium helps ease tension in your blood vessel walls, which helps lower blood pressure.
- Beans: “Beans are high in resistant starch and have been shown to reduce levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, lower blood pressure and decrease inflammation,” says Dr. Beniaminovitz.
- Dark chocolate: High in antioxidants, dark chocolate helps improve blood circulation, lower blood pressure and maintain healthier cholesterol levels. “It also helps lower the risk of developing calcified plaque in the arteries and coronary heart disease,” adds Dr. Beniaminovitz.
- Garlic: Garlic has been shown to help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol. “It may also help inhibit blood clot formation,” notes Dr. Beniaminovitz.
- Olive Oil: Extra-virgin olive oil is an excellent source of antioxidants and monounsaturated fats. “Diets that feature extra-virgin olive oil help prevent heart attacks, strokes, atrial fibrillation and death from heart disease,” states Harvard Health.
- Green Tea: “Green tea is high in polyphenols and catechins. Like most heart-healthy foods, it has also been associated with lower triglycerides and LDL cholesterol,” tells Dr. Beniaminovitz.
#3 Cut back on processed foods.
Processed foods are packed with harmful ingredients like trans fat, saturated fats, MSG and added sugar and sodium. “Trans fats, both artificial and naturally-occurring, raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels,” says Dr. Beniaminovitz. “Eating trans fats is also linked to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes,” he adds. Similarly, “consuming foods that contain saturated fats also raises the bad cholesterol levels in your blood, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke,” explains the cardiologist. Meanwhile, eating salty foods increases the amount of sodium in your bloodstream. “Extra sodium in the blood pulls water into your blood vessels, increasing the total amount or volume of blood inside them. With more blood flowing through your blood vessels, the blood pressure increases,” says Dr. Beniaminovitz. “It’s like turning up the water supply to a garden hose—the pressure in the hose increases as more water is blasted through it,” he explains. Over time, “high blood pressure may overstretch or injure the blood vessel walls and speed the build-up of gunky plaque that can block blood flow. Also, the added pressure tires out the heart by forcing it to work harder to pump blood through the body,” tells the heart specialist. “Consuming too much added sugar is just as bad for your heart health,” says Berman. It can contribute to high blood pressure, weight gain, diabetes and inflammation—all of which are linked to a higher risk of stroke and heart attack. “The recommended amount of added sugar for an average adult is less than 100-150 calories per day,” tells the dietitian. Here are ten processed foods that are worst for your health.
#4 Manage stress.
While some amount of stress is actually good for you, the key is to keep stress and anxiety from spiraling. “Excessive stress can lead to an increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, inflammation and abnormal heart rhythms—all of which are bad for your ticker,” says Dr. Beniaminovitz. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), deep breathing and realistic goal setting are some ways to manage your stress levels effectively. Here are a few more tips to control and reduce stress.
#5 Say no to smoking.
“Studies after studies have shown that quitting smoking is one of the most important things you can do to ensure better cardiovascular health,” says Dr. Beniaminovitz. “It causes inflammation and damage to all vascular beds and is a major cause of heart attacks and strokes,” he adds. Moreover, research highlights that smoking elevates heart rate, tightens major arteries and can cause an irregular heart rhythm, all of which force your ticker to work harder, states Texas Heart Institute. Even passive smoking is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. According to the CDC, secondhand smoke causes nearly 34,000 premature deaths from heart disease each year in the U.S. among nonsmokers.
#6 Watch your alcohol intake.
“Alcohol is a direct cardiotoxin and is bad for your heart,” says Dr. Beniaminovitz. “Excessive drinking can lead to the weakening of the heart, increased inflammation, high blood pressure, higher LDL or bad cholesterol levels,” says the cardiologist. “Heavy drinking may also prematurely age arteries over time, particularly in men, when compared to moderate drinkers,” says the American Heart Association. Moreover, “binge drinking—having five or more drinks in two hours for men or four or more drinks for women—may put you at higher risk for atrial fibrillation, an irregular or quivering heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke and heart failure,” it adds. “If you don’t drink already, don’t start. If you do drink, talk with your doctor about the benefits and risks of consuming alcohol in moderation,” suggests AHA.
#7 Make sleep a priority.
“Poor sleep increases the levels of stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) in your body. These hormones lead to an increased production of glucose, which can contribute to diabetes and obesity,” tells Dr. Beniaminovitz. “These stress hormones also increase baseline heart rate and blood pressure causing the heart to work harder,” he says. Poor sleep also adversely affects our food choices, making us crave more carbohydrate-rich foods like candy, fries, sugary beverages, etc., adds cardiologist. According to the National Sleep Foundation, adults (aged 26-64) should get seven to nine hours of sleep per night while older adults (aged 65+) should sleep for seven to eight hours every night. If you’ve trouble falling asleep, check out this helpful guide from Mayo Clinic.
And lastly, don’t forget to request your healthcare provider to conduct screening tests for blood pressure, cholesterol and coronary artery disease during your regular visits.