You probably know that eating well and moving more will do wonders for your body, especially that vital organ in the center of your chest. That’s great advice, but it’s short on specifics.
Instead of aiming for a general goal and hoping for the best, it’s smart to find out how many minutes of exercise you need, which foods are the healthiest and what other lifestyle changes you can make to protect your heart.
After all, heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the U.S., accounting for about 1 out of every 4 deaths.
Even scarier, about 1 out every 5 heart attacks is silent, meaning the damage is done without causing any noticeable symptoms when it happens. And those silent attacks can put people who have them at a higher risk for other heart attacks down the road.
Ready to whip your heart into better shape?
To kick off American Heart Month, here are some of the best things you can do to take care of your ticker.
Note: The following is for informational purposes only and isn’t meant to diagnose or treat any condition. Please check in with your doctor for specifics about diet, exercise and any medical questions you may have (about your heart or anything else).
When it comes to exercise, consistency is key. In other words, get your body moving again and again throughout the week. The goal should be to work your muscles and boost your heart rate.
Now, that doesn’t mean that your workouts have to end with a beet-red face and dripping sweat. Moderate-intensity exercise is enough for improving heart health.
In fact, research shows that just 15 minutes a day of moderate cardiovascular exercise could add three years to your life. You may get even more benefits if you aim for 45 to 60 minutes daily.
The U.S. government advises that adults should get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. Spread out over 5 days, that’s just 30 minutes a day.
Low-impact activities are best because they won’t wear out your joints and muscles in the process of improving your heart health. Consider things like:
Although moderate exercise is generally sufficient, you may want to vary your routine with bursts of intensity now and then. That’s because engaging in 12 minutes of intense activity may have positive effects on your inflammation level and how well your body responds to insulin.
Some experts recommend doing HIIT routines, which alternate short bursts of intense activity with rest periods, once or twice a week.
No matter what type of exercise you choose, remember not to do more than your body can handle. Always warm up before a workout, and ease yourself into more vigorous activities over time. And if you have any doubts about an activity — or notice any problems while you’re moving — ask your doctor about it.
In addition to cardio workouts, you should also focus on building your muscles. Aim for two, half-hour strength training sessions per week on top of your 150 minutes of cardio activity. Ideally, you’ll give yourself at least one day of rest between the two weight sessions.
Options for strength training include:
- Free weights
- Gym machines
- Resistance bands
- Bodyweight exercises, like pushups, planks and squats
Strength building exercises can help bring down your body fat, increase how much muscle you have and strengthen your bones. As a result, you may improve your cholesterol and lower your diabetes risk.
Flexibility exercises have often been considered good for your overall wellness but not directly essential for heart health. New research may be changing that view.
According to a 2020 study, stretching exercises that focus on the leg muscles may improve blood flow through the body. And improved blood flow supports artery health.
While this research is still in development, flexibility exercises do offer another clear benefit for your heart. Flexibility training improves your core strength, which directly influences your ability to engage in cardio and strength training.
The Right Fuel
Fewer Inflammatory Foods
Inflammation and heart disease tend to go hand in hand. A study published in November 2020 indicates that eating an inflammatory diet can increase the likelihood that you’ll experience heart disease.
Study participants with high-inflammation diets were 38% more prone to cardiovascular problems than those who ate diets designed to thwart inflammation.
The researchers called out specific types of food that could raise the risk of heart problems. They included red meat, refined grains and sweetened drinks.
Instead of reaching for potentially problematic snacks and meals, opt for high-fiber foods with plenty of antioxidants. That includes things like whole grains, leafy greens and tea.
A Wide Range of Colors
Fruits and vegetables are some of the best sources of fiber and antioxidants. The more you eat, the more benefit you’ll gain. Research shows that 5 servings a day will do you some good, but 10 or more servings can reap vast rewards.
In particular, you’ll cut your risk of heart disease by 28%.
Different varieties of produce offer different benefits, so it’s smart to eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. Some of the top choices for heart health include:
- Leafy greens
- Cruciferous vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower)
- Citrus fruits
Berries, apples, pears, peppers and squash are other examples of fruits and vegetables that may benefit your heart.
You might associate low-fat eating with superior heart health, but researchers have found that not to be the case. The trick isn’t to cut out fat entirely. It’s to choose unsaturated fat over other types.
Good sources of unsaturated fat include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil
- Peanut butter
Unsaturated fat is particularly prevalent in Mediterranean diets. But you can also incorporate unsaturated fat into plant-based diets and other balanced approaches to eating.
Lifestyle Tips for Heart Health
Diet and exercise alone may help keep your heart healthy, but some lifestyle changes may be in order if you’ve got a few bad habits hanging around, like smoking. Here are some general tips for boosting heart health with lifestyle changes.
Cut out cigarettes.
Smoking and other forms of tobacco use can do a number on your heart. Cigarette use can double or even quadruple your risk of heart disease. Among other things, it harms your blood vessels, raises your blood pressure and speeds up your heart rate.
To begin reversing these effects, you’ll need to drop your tobacco habit. The changes may be slow at first. But over time, the choice to quit can significantly improve your overall health.
Plus, smoking cessation may be a covered benefit under your health insurance plan, making it both cost-effective and convenient to quit with the help of your primary care doctor.
Get your partner on board.
Household members often engage in similar behaviors. Research published in 2020 noted that when one member of a couple had one or more risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking, high BMI or high blood pressure, the other partner typically had risk factors as well.
That same research also indicated that one partner’s participation in a wellness program could lead to better health for both. Multiple couples in the study lost weight, improved their diets, quit smoking or got more exercise in tandem.
Try regular meditation.
If you want to protect your health, make space in your life for calming, contemplative activities. According to one 2020 database study, there’s a correlation between regular meditation and improved heart health.
Researchers discovered that study participants who meditated regularly were nearly half as likely to have coronary artery disease compared to those who didn’t meditate.
Meditation was also linked to lower rates of other cardiovascular conditions, such as high blood pressure and stroke.
Take warm baths.
Taking a nice soak isn’t just a nice way to unwind after a tough day. It may offer health benefits, too.
Bathing relaxes your blood vessels so that your heart can move blood more easily through your body. A study published in 2020 suggests that taking a warm or hot bath every day could lower your risk of a cardiovascular event.
Regular bathers had a 26% lower chance of having a stroke and a 28% lower chance of being diagnosed with heart disease. More specifically, warm-water bathing led to a 26% lower risk of heart disease, but hot baths brought the risk down by 35%.
But one of the best things you can do for your heart health is to find a routine that works for you. That might mean a daily walk, a Mediterranean diet and a nightly hot bath. Or it could involve laps in the pool, colorful plant-based meals and frequent meditation sessions.
Whatever your approach, find the balance that suits your health needs and your lifestyle. Your heart will thank you for your efforts.