By Eirish Sison
About 735,000 Americans suffer a heart attack each year, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The numbers may be scary, but here's some good news: from munching on oatmeal to spending more time outside, there are simple things you can do daily to lower your risk. Here are 22 ways to take control of your heart health.
One major step toward lowering your risk for heart disease is actually knowing which risk factors you have. While some risk factors — like age or having a family history of heart disease — cannot be changed, others — like having high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, or diabetes; being overweight or physically inactive; or smoking cigarettes — can be managed or remedied. Your doctor can help you assess your risk factors and help you devise a heart-smart plan to reduce them.
Cigarette smoking is one of the major changeable risk factors for heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, pack-a-day smokers have more than two times the risk of heart attack than people who have never smoked. Exposure to cigarette smoke can even put nonsmokers at risk for heart disease — so quitting smoking will not just be good for you, but for the people around you.
A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found an association between getting a seasonal flu vaccine and a lower chance of having a first heart attack. You get protection from the flu, too, of course!
Seeing your doctor for a regular tune-up ensures that any irregularities with your blood pressure, blood sugar or cholesterol levels will be spotted — and dealt with — as early as possible.
A study from Singapore found that people who got their teeth cleaned by a dentist or dental hygienist at least once a year had a lower risk of heart attack than those who never had a professional cleaning, because tooth scaling seems to reduce bacteria growth that causes inflammation and can up your risk for heart attack or stroke.
If you have diabetes, your risk of heart attack is nearly doubled compared to someone who doesn't have it. Keeping your blood sugar in check can help you manage your diabetes and lower your heart attack risk.
Oats have the highest proportion of soluble fiber of any grain — a hearty (pun intended) two grams per one-cup serving. Soluble fiber forms a gel-like substance in the body, which helps sweep up cholesterol. Don’t just save this whole grain for breakfast. Swap oats for one-third of the flour in baked goods and use them instead of breadcrumbs in recipes like meat loaf.
While red wine contains resveratrol, an antioxidant that may reduce the risk of blood clot formation and heart attack, drinking too much alcohol can also cause spikes in blood pressure and higher triglyceride levels, increasing your risk for heart disease. If you decide to drink, limit yourself to one drink a day for women, two for men.
Too busy in the morning for breakfast? You're not doing your heart a favor. Eating whole-grain cereal for breakfast even just once per week has been found to reduce risk for heart failure by 14%. That number goes even higher with more frequent servings — those who ate whole-grain breakfast cereal 7 times a week or more reduced their risk by 28%.
The details on health benefits of tea keep pouring in. Researchers in the Netherlands found that compared to drinking less than a cup a day, drinking 3 to 6 cups of tea a day (black, green or similar leaf teas, not herbal) was associated with a 45% reduced risk of death from heart disease, and drinking more than six cups a day was associated with a 36% lower risk of heart disease itself. Other studies have shown that tea helps keep blood vessels relaxed and prevent blood clots.
In addition, flavonoids, the major antioxidants in tea, have been shown to prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol that leads to plaque formation on artery walls.
For maximum benefit, drink caffeinated tea. The decaffeination process can reduce antioxidant levels.
This fragrant spice is antioxidant-rich, tastes delicious, and is good for both your heart health and your blood sugar. You need quite a bit (at least 3 teaspoons) to reap the benefits, so try using cinnamon where you would otherwise add sugar (like in coffee or oatmeal), or even try adding it to savory dishes!
Some packaged food products marketed as healthy choices are actually loaded with sugar and fat, so make sure to double-check the nutrition label. Watch out for food that has too much sugar or salt or any trans fats.
Has that holiday gluttony resurfaced in the form of a spare tire or love handles? Individuals with excessive fat in their mid-section, as opposed to in other areas of their body, are at increased risk of heart disease. Need some help trimming the fat? Start a food diary! “A food diary is the single most effective strategy for losing weight in the long term,” according to James Beckerman, MD, a cardiologist with Providence Heart & Vascular Institute in Portland, OR, and author of The Flex Diet. “People who keep a food diary can experience double the weight loss of people who go it alone.” You can track what you eat in the My Diet Diary app (for iOS and Android).
If you need an excuse to trade in your car keys for a bike helmet, here's one. A 2009 Swedish study found that people who regularly drive to work have a whopping 70% higher risk for heart attack than those who take a more active route like walking, biking or public transportation. Lowering your gas expenses is an added bonus!
Being overweight and/or physically inactive puts you at greater risk for heart attack, so a good diet and proper exercise are key. Why not recruit a friend to work toward better heart health with you? Whether you join a recreational sports team, buddy up on a gym membership or simply get together for a walk or jog after work, having someone to work out with can help you stay motivated — and it’s a great way to bond.
If you’re looking to lose some weight and keep it off, monitoring your progress definitely helps. This doesn’t mean constantly obsessing over every crumb and calorie; it can be as simple as weighing yourself once a week. Greater weight self-monitoring is correlated to greater weight loss and less weight gain, according to several studies, as the frequent feedback may prompt you to make changes in your routine to get the results you want.
The best way to find out whether any physical activity is improving the fitness of your heart and lungs is by tracking your heart rate when you exercise. According to the guide, your target heart rate should be between 50 to 75% of your maximum heart rate, which changes as you age. Over 75% may be too strenuous except for those in tip-top shape, while less than 50% is not enough to sufficiently condition your heart and lungs.
Regular physical activity isn't just great for the waistline. It also lowers your risk of heart disease. But you don't have to hit the gym or start training for a marathon to get into better shape. Start simple, by spending some more time being active with the people — or pets — you love.
Whether you use an old-fashioned pedometer, a fitness device, or even your smartphone, get more active by keeping track of your step count and then trying to raise that number to about 10,000 steps (or roughly 5 miles) a day. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking farther away from the entrance to the grocery store are easy ways to up your step count. The Sugar Sense app (for iOS and Android) can count your steps using your smartphone, if you enable the feature (in the Settings menu, click on Connect Apps & Devices, then turn on the Step Counter).
Studies have repeatedly linked excess stress with heart disease. What better way to battle stress than by taking the time to just sit still and focus on your breathing? Some other benefits of meditation include better mood, memory, concentration and even reduced pain when it is practiced long-term.
If your idea of a nature walk is crossing your lawn to take out the garbage, you may want to start spending more time outdoors. Research from the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry in the UK touted the benefits of exercising outside: it’s associated with “greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression.”
And you don’t even have to exercise intensely. Several studies on the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku (rough translation: “take a walk in the woods” or “forest bathing”) showed that just being in forest environments results in lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, a slower pulse and lower blood pressure.
In an age when more and more people are overworked, learning to say "no" and to be realistic about one's capabilities is more important than ever. Make sure to keep time in your schedule to relax and de-stress. Your heart will love you for it.
Published on March 6, 2012. Updated on April 14, 2016.
Eirish Sison is a health writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area.