Written by Amanda MacMillan, Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC for WebMD
Making small changes in your habits can make a real difference to your ticker.
“It’s like finding the fountain of youth,” says Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “People who follow these steps not only live longer, but they also spend a lot more time healthy, without cardiovascular disease.”
You don’t have to work on all 10 steps at once. Even if you improve just one or two of these areas, you can make yourself less likely to get heart disease. Of course, the more tips on this list you follow, the better. So let’s get started.
1. Aim for lucky number seven.
The next time you’re tempted to stay up later than you should, remember how comfy that pillow will feel and how good a full night’s sleep is for your heart.
In one study, young and middle-age adults who slept 7 hours a night had less calcium in their arteries (an early sign of heart disease) than those who slept 5 hours or less or those who slept 9 hours or more.
The type of shut-eye they got was important, too. Adults who said they got good-quality sleep also had healthier arteries than those who didn’t sleep soundly.
If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, or if you don’t feel refreshed after a full night in bed, talk to your doctor about what changes you can make to help.
2. Keep the pressure off.
That cuff squeezing your arm at every doctor’s visit is important. It measures the amount of pressure flowing through your arteries with every heartbeat.
If your blood pressure gets too high, the extra force can damage artery walls and create scar tissue. That makes it harder for blood and oxygen to get to and from your heart. The heart has to pump harder and gets worn out faster. If it can’t get enough oxygen, parts can start to die.
Get your blood pressure checked every 3-5 years if you’re 18-39. If you’re 40 or older, or if you have high blood pressure, check it every year.
Cut back on salt, limit alcohol to no more than one to two drinks a day, favor healthy eating habits (think fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein) manage your stress, and work out. These changes are often enough to bring your blood pressure back down into the normal range. If not, your doctor might recommend you also take medication.
3. Slash saturated fats.
To help your heart’s arteries, cut down on saturated fats, which are mainly found in meat and full-fat dairy products. Choose leaner cuts and reduced-fat options.
Also, totally quit trans fats, which are found in some processed foods. They drive up your “bad” (LDL) cholesterol level. Check ingredient lists for anything that says “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” — those are trans fats.
If it’s been 5 or more years since your last cholesterol blood test, you’re probably due for one.
4. Find out if you have diabetes.
Millions of people don’t know that they have this condition. That’s risky because over time, high blood sugar damages arteries and makes heart disease more likely.
Your doctor should test your blood sugar if you are 45 or older, if you are pregnant, or if you’re overweight and have other risk factors for diabetes.
If you find out that you have diabetes, work with your doctor on your lifestyle (diet and exercise) and any medicine that you may need.
If you have borderline high blood sugar, also called prediabetes, take action now to turn things around.
One simple swap is to trade processed carbs (like white rice) for fiber-rich whole grains (like brown rice). Every positive change you make in what you eat and how active you are will help. Over time, you’ll be able to do more.
5. Move more.
To keep it simple, you can aim for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week of moderate exercise. That includes any activity that gets you moving around and breaking a slight sweat.
“If you’re doing nothing, do something. And if you’re doing something, do more,” Lloyd-Jones says.
Also, pay attention to how much time you spend seated, whether it’s at work, in your car, or on your couch at home. You want to cut that time down.
“We now know that even if you exercise for 30 minutes a day, being sedentary for the other 23 1/2 hours is really bad for your heart,” says Monika Sanghavi, MD, assistant professor of cardiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
Break up long periods of sitting, and stand or walk while doing things like talking on the phone or watching TV.
6. Clean up.
Your heart works best when it runs on clean fuel. That means lots of whole, plant-based foods (like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds) and fewer refined or processed foods (like white bread, pasta, crackers, and cookies).
It’s time-tested wisdom. “The latest fads get overplayed by the media. But the core of what makes a heart-healthy eating pattern hasn’t changed for decades,” Lloyd-Jones says.
One of the fastest ways to clean up your diet is to cut out sugary beverages like soda and fruit juice, which lacks the fiber that’s in actual fruit.
“We drink way too many of our calories,” Sanghavi says. “And those calories don’t fill us up the way real food does, so we have them in addition to everything else we’re eating, with no nutritional benefit.”
7. Think beyond the scale.
Ask your doctor if your weight is OK. If you have some pounds to lose, you’ll probably want to change your eating habits and be more active. But there’s more to it than that.
For many people, “emotional eating” is where they find comfort and stress relief, and how they celebrate. So if it’s hard to change those patterns, it can help to talk with a counselor to find other ways to handle those situations.
8. Ditch the cigarettes, real and electronic.
Smoking and secondhand smoke are bad for your heart. If you smoke, quit, and don’t spend time around others who smoke as well.
E-cigarettes are popular, but they’re not completely problem-free. “They don’t contain the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke, and they can help some people wean themselves off of smoking,” Lloyd-Jones says. “But they still do contain nicotine, so your goal should be to quit completely, not just switch to a less toxic version.”
9. Do more of what you love.
“I tell my patients that managing stress in a healthy way, whether it’s meditation, yoga, or exercise, is really important,” Sanghavi says.
Make it a point, too, to spend time with people you’re close to. Talk, laugh, confide, and enjoy each other. It’s good for your emotional health and your heart.
10. Celebrate every step.
Making changes like these takes time and effort. Think progress, not perfection. And reward yourself for every positive step you take. Ask your friends and family to support you and join in, too. Your heart’s future will be better for it!