Throughout February, American Heart Month aims to raise awareness about heart health, a crucial mission as heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death in American adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 659,041 Americans died of heart disease in 2019.
Medical professionals are deeply concerned about the state of cardiovascular health in American adults, said Dennis Bruemmer, director of the Center for CardioMetabolic Health at the Cleveland Clinic. On top of all the oft-cited lifestyle factors that increase the risk of heart disease, healthy habits and regular doctor visits may be slipping (understandably) during the coronavirus pandemic.
While this feels pretty grim, there is a bright side: Some of the risk factors that can lead to heart disease are preventable. Below, experts share nine simple habits that can improve your heart health.
Get familiar with your numbers.
Jorge Plutzky, director of preventive cardiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said one critical step to combating heart disease is to be aware of your own cardiovascular health status.
“People should know their numbers,” he said. “That means knowing your blood pressure, knowing your cholesterol, especially your bad cholesterol level, and knowing your glucose levels.”
Medical guidelines have long stated that every American should know their lipid profile by the time they’re 21, Plutzky noted. Your lipid profile is the breakdown of cholesterol in your body ― both the good cholesterol, which is high-density lipoprotein or HDL, and the bad cholesterol, which is low-density lipoprotein or LDL. Your bad cholesterol is the primary focus in terms of risk and treatment.
“The LDL is really the most important number because we know that predicts risk of a heart attack and stroke,” he said.
You want your LDL number to be low. Plutzky said it should be under 100, unless you’ve had a previous cardiovascular issue, in which case it should be 70 or lower.
Plutzky added that it’s easier to make a change when you know what needs to change. In other words, if you know your bad cholesterol is too high, you’ll focus more on the habits that lower LDL levels (like a healthy diet).
Make eating healthy food a priority most of the time.
And speaking of diet, you can’t ignore the role it plays in your heart health. This doesn’t mean you have to entirely give up food that you love just because it might be considered “unhealthy.” (Viva les donuts!) Do cut back on the unhealthy foods and make sure to include lots of proper nutrients as well.
Eating healthy can help you control some of the risk factors — such as obesity and high cholesterol — that can lead to heart disease. Bruemmer said that a Mediterranean diet, one that centers on fruit, veggies and lean proteins like chicken, fish, whole grains and tofu, is a good baseline for healthy eating.
One note: This may sound like an easy thing in theory, but the execution can be difficult. For example, Bruemmer stressed that one of the big problems in the U.S. is the fact that a burger and fries is a much cheaper meal than a salad with chicken.
“This is wiggling into political questions,” he said, “but I think this is a major challenge” for the nation.
Aim for 20 minutes of movement in your day.
According to the American Heart Association, adults should get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity (things like brisk walking, dancing and gardening) or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (running, jumping rope, cycling at more than 10 miles per hour) each week. That equates to about 20 minutes a day if you’re doing moderate activity. Most Americans do not achieve this exercise goal.
When most people think of exercise, we jump to an all-or-nothing mentality. But Bruemmer noted that you can start small when it comes to moving your body. This recommendation doesn’t mean you should begin training for a marathon.
Try incorporating an evening stroll into your routine, take work calls as you walk back and forth in your room, walk to a nearby errand instead of driving, and use the stairs instead of the elevator.
Plutzky added that it’s critical to do movements you enjoy, whether that means yoga, cycling, golf or dance. He said that it’s easier to stay committed to physical activity if it’s something you actually want to do. Exercise should not feel like punishment.
Take more naps (or, better yet, get a full night’s rest).
A lack of sleep can increase your risk for heart problems. Listen to your body. Make sure to get enough rest, even if that means a quick snooze during the day.
But the most important thing you can do in this regard is to get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Set yourself up for success by unwinding at least 30 minutes before bed. It can also be helpful to make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary ― that means keep your work laptop and any other stress triggers away from your bed as much as possible.
Find something that calms your brain for at least 10 to 15 minutes.
Stress relief is key to keeping your heart healthy. Of course, that’s easier said than done in a pandemic.
Try to set aside a small chunk of your day when “nothing can go wrong,” so to speak. That means blocking out the news, work emails, texts or whatever else might increase your blood pressure. Use that time instead to do a creative craft, read a book, call your friends, look at pets that are up for adoption, research ridiculous houses on Zillow ― whatever brings you a sense of fun and relaxation.
Set incremental benchmark goals if your weight is a factor.
Weight is not always an indicator of overall health, and just because you look a certain way doesn’t mean you’re at risk or not at risk.
That said, research does show that people who are obese or overweight tend to be at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Bruemmer noted that major weight loss is not always necessary to see heart-healthy results. If weight loss is needed for your overall health, setting an achievable goal is key.
“Even small changes have a dramatic impact on your health,” he said. “Losing five pounds will have a notable impact on blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.”
Try to stop smoking.
Smoking is not an easy habit to quit but it’s vital to attempt ― especially since smoking increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Conversely, Plutzky said, stopping smoking improves a person’s health immensely, not only in terms of risk of heart disease but also risk of cancer and lung disease.
“We really encourage people not to start, but if you have started, make every effort to stop,” he said. Plutzky noted that many people aren’t able to quit on their first attempt, but they shouldn’t feel discouraged and should keep trying. (Here are some science-backed methods that can help you quit.)
Don’t be afraid of necessary medicine.
Because of their genetics or other health conditions, some people won’t be able to reduce their cardiovascular disease risk enough with lifestyle changes. And that’s perfectly OK. There are medicines that can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
According to Plutzky, people who have had a cardiovascular event ― or have a high-risk condition like diabetes ― often need to be on cholesterol-lowering therapy. He stressed that medicines that improve cardiovascular health are safe and effective. Unfortunately, many folks are resistant when they hear the phrase “daily pill.”
“‘I don’t want to take pills. I don’t like pills.’ Those are common refrains we get from some people,” he said.
It’s important to listen if a physician recommends medicine to reduce specific factors for cardiovascular disease. “We know that [your LDL level] predicts risk of a heart attack and stroke, and that lowering the LDL with certain drug therapy when necessary and appropriate can decrease that risk,” Plutzky said.
Taking medicine should be combined, however, with a healthy lifestyle. “I’m always telling my patients that I can’t put the benefits of eating right and being active into a pill. There are so many benefits that come from that,” he said.
Make a plan to do all of this starting right now.
Whatever your age, it’s never too early to start focusing on your heart health. Complications in terms of the cardiovascular system develop over a very long time, Plutzky said. Decades of unhealthy habits can be to blame.
Plutzky added there’s evidence that atherosclerosis, which is the disease underlying most heart attacks, can begin in people in their 20s. That means if someone has a heart attack when they’re 70 or 80, it could be the culmination of atherosclerosis that started decades earlier, he explained.
“The idea of taking care of yourself ― not smoking, being active, eating right, knowing your numbers ― is relevant throughout our lifetimes and earlier than people realize,” he said.