Unless heart disease runs in your family, you may not think much about the health of your ticker. However, heart disease is the Number 1 cause of death in the U.S., and one in three deaths is due to heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases.
The good news is that a few lifestyle changes can help prevent these diseases. First and foremost: If you currently smoke, find the support you need to stop. Smoking increases the risk of both heart disease and stroke by 2-4 times, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Beyond that, these five simple and inexpensive strategies have been shown to help keep your heart healthy. The more you do, the better, but even one can give your ticker a boost.
1. BE SOCIAL
“It’s important to maintain a sense of connection,” says Johanna Paola Contreras, MD, an assistant professor at Mount Sinai Hospital. Loneliness and a lack of relationships were associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke in a recent study in the journal Heart.
“Keep in touch with family, friends and people who you are close to and who make you feel well,” Contreras recommends. Getting together in person is best, but video chatting or calling are also good alternatives.
Additionally, do things that make you feel good, such as walking in a park you love, eating foods that energize you, volunteering at an animal shelter or dancing around your home like nobody’s watching.
“If you feel good about yourself, you will make better health choices,” Contreras says.
2. DO CARDIO AND RESISTANCE TRAINING
“Healthy people should do as much physical activity as they can and want to,” says Jeremy M. Parker, MD, a cardiologist with AnMed Health Carolina Cardiology. “There are data to suggest that [activities such as] running, walking, weight lifting and rowing all have cardiovascular benefits.” Research has also found that more active people have lower rates of heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommends a mix of aerobic exercise and strength training every week. Their guidelines advise at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity 5 days a week or at least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity at least 3 days a week, plus at least 2 days of strength training.
You don’t need to fixate on the numbers, though. Parker recommends simply moving at least a little bit on more days than not. Contreras also suggests working movement into your day, like taking the stairs as often as possible, going on a bike ride with your kids or catching up with friends on a hike rather than over drinks.
3. EAT THE RIGHT FOODS
“Nutrition is hugely important in heart disease prevention,” Parker says. Several studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet can help reduce the risk of heart disease. Researchers credit the diet’s emphasis on fresh, unprocessed foods such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fish and healthy fats (like nuts and olive oil) for providing the cardiovascular benefits.
Other good options are lean meats, beans and — good news for vino lovers — a little red wine in moderation (one glass a day for women; two per day for men). Of course, you should also be mindful of portion sizes, Contreras says.
4. FIND WAYS TO MANAGE STRESS
Easier said than done, we know, but stress is a proven risk factor for heart disease and stroke. And based on findings in a January 2017 study, scientists just discovered a possible reason why.
Researchers recorded the brain activity of almost 300 adults and found that higher activity in the amygdala — which is involved in emotional response — was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. More amygdala activity was also linked to more bone marrow activity and inflammation in the arteries, which may cause the heart risk, the study authors say.
“This raises the possibility that reducing stress could produce benefits that extend beyond an improved sense of psychological well-being,” lead author Ahmed Tawakol, MD, said in a news release.
There are many ways to relieve stress; the key is to find what works best for you. Whether you do yoga, meditate, get massages, take a bath, journal or something else entirely, it’s important to dedicate regular time to this, says Parker. Put it in your calendar, if that helps you make it a habit.
5. GET YOUR ZZZ’S
One thing most of us dream about is more sleep. Unfortunately, several studies suggest that inadequate sleep can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. “Shorter sleep duration may increase inflammation and may also be associated with hypertension,” Parker says.
Contreras recommends aiming for six to eight hours of sleep each night. “Everyone is different and some people can work and function on less hours of sleep, however that does not mean they are not at risk,” she adds.
Establish a healthy bedtime routine that avoids these bad presleep habits and make sleep a priority.