Taking Right Steps Toward A Healthier Heart
One of the most monumental health concerns revolves around your heart, that little muscle that beats inside your chest and somehow keeps us alive.
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the US, and can oftentimes strike without warning, causing severe debilitation, if not death.
As such, a healthy heart is a major component of a healthy lifestyle and a longer life. And while heart disease may seem like a scary thing, there are plenty of tips and tricks to keep your heart pumping.
Besides making you feel crappy, sleep deprivation has severe consequences on your heart, including an increase in calcium deposits and blood pressure, both predictors of heart disease.
When you sleep, your blood pressure and heart rate drop, allowing your heart to rest and recover; if your heart is not granted this opportunity to heal from one day and prepare for the next, it won’t be able to function properly, and can even result in heart disease.
While the link between heart disease and sleep is still a relatively new area of study, researchers have only been able to prove a correlation (not causation) between lack of sleep and heart disease.
Regardless, getting the right amount of sleep (7-9 hours) will never hurt.
#2 Have Sex
Sex does more than just feel good. It actually helps keep you healthy.
Pertaining to heart health, having regular sex helps in two ways. One, it serves as cardio exercise, getting your heart rate up, and strengthening your heart.
Sex also keeps your Testosterone and Estrogen hormonal levels in balance, which is a strong defense against heart disease, among other things.
The studies back this up, showing that men who had sex at least once per week were half as likely to die from heart disease, than those who had sex on a more occasional basis.
#3 Don’t Smoke
At this point, everyone generally knows that smoking is not good for you. But, with specific regards to your heart, it is incredibly damaging.
The chemicals in cigarettes damage your blood cells and weaken your heart, creating a plaque buildup in your arteries that will almost certainly lead to heart disease.
This occurs as the plaque buildup blocks and slows blood flow, forcing your heart to pump harder, with steadily worsening results, horribly weakening the strength of your heart.
In addition, smoking results in heavy damage to your lungs, which work in tandem with your heart. Weak lungs means your heart can’t beat at the required rate, especially if your arteries are choked with additional plaque.
Your odds of getting heart disease increase insurmountably if you smoke.
#4 Keep Blood Pressure Low
High blood pressure can lead to heart disease in a few different ways.
High blood pressure does two things to your arteries; it damages them, and also causes them to shrink and narrow. The result is the same; a reduction of blood flow.
As such, your heart will be forced to work much harder to pump blood throughout your body, resulting in a weak, possibly enlarged heart that can readily fail.
Basically, the higher your blood pressure, the harder your heart has to work to do its job. And the harder your heart is working, the heavier your risk becomes.
#5 Keep Cholesterol Down
Cholesterol comes from two places; your liver, and the food you eat. Your body uses cholesterol to build cells and protect nerves.
But too much cholesterol becomes a bad thing, for your overall health, and, more specifically, the health of your heart.
High cholesterol can result in the blockage or entire shutdown of arteries, inhibiting blood flow. This is referred to as atherosclerosis, which is a form of heart disease.
The result of atherosclerosis is too little blood and oxygen getting to the heart, and a subsequent heart attack.
Because of this, it is important to reduce your consumption of LDL (the bad kind) of cholesterol, by reducing your consumption of sugar and greasy foods.
Exercise will also help keep your cholesterol under control.
#6 Cut Out Processed Food & Eat Only Whole, Natural Foods
Diet is an important part of your journey to a healthier heart.
A proper diet can lower blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and insulin levels, which will work together to keep your blood pumping uninhibited, and your heart working at an optimal, healthy rate.
Processed foods (deli meat, packaged cereal, white bread, etc.) are highly refined and preserved.
This preservation process involves the addition of unhealthy ingredients, like tons of excess sugar, salt, or trans fat, while the refinement process breaks down the natural molecular structure, stripping most, if not all, healthful benefits that might have once resided inside your Cheerios box.
By taking these kinds of processed foods out of your regular diet, you are keeping your blood sugar, cholesterol, and insulin levels balanced, which ties in to a healthy heart.
Believe it or not, having close, loving relationships can actually help keep your heart healthy.
The reasoning for this is somewhat unclear, although may have to do with your body’s reaction to the feeling of love, as love generates a peaceful, easy feeling (shoutout to the Eagles) which is linked to lower blood pressure.
If you feel calm, your heart is not working as hard, and your blood pressure is reduced. Reduced blood pressure, as we now know, keeps your heart working healthily, and reduces your risk of heart disease.
Studies have found links between marriage and better cardio health, as well as links between loving support and faster recovery from heart surgery.
So, for the sake of your heart, go find your person and give ’em a hug.
#8 Yoga and Meditation
Yoga, the ancient practice of stretching and breathing, is loaded with health benefits. Among these, is the benefit of a healthier, stronger heart.
The link between body and mind becomes clearer with each published medical study.
Yoga, and specifically, meditation, relaxes your body and soothes your mind, resulting in a concerted, hopefully daily, effort to lower your heart rate, which allows your heart to grow stronger.
Further, for the same reasons that a feeling of love can help reduce your risk of heart disease, meditation can also reduce your risk, as it keeps you calm, reducing your blood pressure, and easing your heart rate.
Numbers wise, daily meditation practice results in a higher Heart Rate Variation (HRV), which is a sign of a healthy heart.
So, take a seat close your eyes, and breath. It’s all for the heart.
Music is one of the purest forms of art, accessible and personable to everybody at once, in different ways and forms.
I’m sure listening to one of your favorite songs results in a calm contention, which is actually where the heart-related benefits of music come into play.
Research has shown that certain types of music can help lower your blood pressure, increase or lower your heart rate, make your arteries more supple, and contract the heart.
Further research has shown that combining classical or instrumental music with antihypertensive drugs drastically improves the effect of the drugs.
Go plug in and shamelessly turn up the volume, your heart will thank you.
Everyone loves to laugh. It’s infectious and freeing.
There are few better feelings than when your chest heaves and you’re crying and can’t breathe because you’re laughing too hard.
You may have heard that people who laugh tend to live longer, a classic win-win scenario.
Thankfully, there is definitely some truth to this.
Laughter relaxes your body and releases endorphins, which lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, increases the number of T-Cells (disease fighting cells) in your blood, increases blood flow, and even acts as a cardiovascular workout, strengthening both your heart and lungs.
Sit down with a funny movie or maybe even just play a game of Pictonary, the burning means it’s working.
#11 Eat Breakfast
I’m sure you’ve heard before that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
That phrase is actually based in fact; those who skip breakfast are at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
A study found that out of people aged 40 to 75 in the United States, those who never ate breakfast were at an 87% higher risk of death by heart disease.
The benefits of breakfast are two fold.
Eating breakfast kick starts your metabolism for the day, as well as lowering your risk of diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure, all three of which are related to heart health.
#12 Eat Fish
Eating fatty fish (like salmon or tuna) several times per week can actually help your heart.
This is owing to the level of Omega-3s in seafood, which has been found to reduce inflammation, ease blood flow and reduce the risk of blood clots, as well as reduce the likelihood of experiencing heart arrythmias, which are random, unhealthy variations in heart rate.
The numbers are staggering; people who eat fish have a 50% lower chance of experiencing cardiac arrest, and a 22% lower risk of coronary artery disease.
The best way to incorporate your Omega-3s from seafood, is to eat fish no more than twice a week, and instead of beef or pork.
Studies have been unable to determine if the better heart-health numbers are because of participants eating less meat, or eating more fatty fish.
The best fish to eat are the ones with the highest amounts of Omega-3s; Salmon, Mackerel, and Swordfish all contain over 1,000 milligrams; it’s best to devote your two fish-meals per week to those fish that will grant you the highest amount of Omega-3s.
#13 Dark Chocolate
Eating chocolate can help your heart!
Let me say that again, because it just sounds so sweet. Eating chocolate can help your heart.
If you’re a chocoholic like me, this is great news. Even if you’re not quite that addicted, chocolate is undeniably delicious, and, apparently healthy.
Multiple studies have found a connection between eating about three ounces of chocolate a day, and reduced chances of heart disease.
It is important to note that the studies that have researched chocolate have only been observational studies. Correlation is proven, not causation.
So don’t replace your fruits and veggies with bars of Hershey’s dark, but a few squares after dinner definitely won’t hurt.
#14 Eat Nuts
Nuts are sometimes (and incorrectly) considered unhealthy because of their high fat content.
In reality, while they are high in fat, the fat is a healthy kind of fat. Nuts are also loaded with protein and other nutrients.
Harvard performed a massive 32-year-long study on the benefits of nuts, and have found a significant correlation between eating nuts and improved cardiovascular health.
They found that participants who ate a handful of nuts a few days every week had the lowest chances of getting heart disease.
In addition, eating nuts five or more times per week resulted in a 14% lower chance of heart disease, and a 20% lower chance of coronary heart disease.
Biologically, nuts decrease cholesterol in the blood, and inflammation in the body, strengthening and protecting your heart.
#15 Eat Less Salt
Sodium is a necessary part of life. But, if not in the right amounts, it can be severely damaging to your health.
Too much salt results in increased blood pressure. This is because excess sodium content in your bloodstream causes excess water (and blood) to be pulled into the heart; the more blood there is, the higher the blood pressure.
Reducing your intake of sodium consumption has a direct correlation to a reduction in blood pressure, which directly protects the health of your heart.
The American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, though, consume less if possible.
But don’t drive yourself crazy counting numbers. Just try to stay away from salty food.
Cardio, or aerobic exercise, gets your heart pumping fast, strengthening your heart and lungs, or your cardiovascular system.
The import of cardiovascular training is high.
If you perform aerobic exercise on a regular basis, it will improve the flow of oxygen in your blood, it will lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, it will strengthen your blood vessels and heart, and will result in a highly reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
There are tons of different ways to get your cardio in and keep it interesting. Swimming, biking, running, jogging, or even just walking, and competing in sports, all serve to get your heart pumping.
As long as you vary intensity and exercises, and as long as you stretch on a regular basis to prevent injuries, consistent cardio exercise has no drawbacks.
#17 Interval Training
Interval training is a variation of straight-up aerobic exercise, and can be applied to your preferred form of cardiovascular training.
Interval training is simply alternating between short periods of high intensity exercise, and short periods of rest.
For example, instead of running at a 9 minute mile pace for 3 miles, you would jog for a minute, run at your mile pace for two minutes, sprint for thirty seconds, then walk for two minutes, and repeat until you reach your desired mileage.
Generally, interval workouts are shorter than non-interval workouts, and are based more on timing than distance. You can apply this style of exercise to swimming and biking as well.
And there are definitely more ways to do it; the method I just described comes from the Nike+Run app, which I use whenever I run.
Because interval training is performed at a higher intensity, it pushes your heart to its maximum heart rate, and forces you to recover swiftly in between high intensity bursts.
If you can recover your breath enough in between intervals, it means your heart and lung health are drastically improving.
Basically, interval training does the same thing that non interval training does, it just does it much faster.
#18 Lift Weights
New studies have also found that resistance training (pushups, pullups, and pumping iron) has surprising benefits for your heart.
There is a slight disclaimer, in that aerobic exercise has a much higher impact on heart health, however, about an hour of weight training per week highly decreases your odds of getting heart disease.
The reason for this is that lifting weights allows you to build muscle, and when you build muscle, even if you’re not aerobically active, you’re still burning more calories and consuming more energy, because of your higher percentage of muscle mass.
The benefits you get from weight lifting, and building muscle, are separate and additional to any benefits accrued through aerobic activity.
The results of resistance training, among increased bone and joint health, include better blood flow, reduced blood pressure, and lower risk of obesity.
Even though cardio is easier to do, getting a gym membership, even if you only go once or twice a week, will definitely help to keep your heart in good condition (plus you’ll be one step closer to that lusted-after beach body).
#19 Keep The Weight Off
Obesity does a few things that imparts strain upon your heart; it forces your heart to enlarge and work harder, as your body requires more blood pumped farther throughout your body.
Obesity also often comes with high blood pressure, which strains your entire cardiovascular system. Both of these things can lead to heart failure.
Studies that followed people who lost weight, noticed benefits that lasted even as some pounds were regained, benefits that include a stronger heart, thicker heart muscle tissue, and thicker carotid artery walls; all of which lowers your risk of heart disease or failure.
While it may be difficult, by pursuing healthy methods of weight loss, you will strengthen your heart, among other things.
#20 Lower Your Alcohol Consumption
Heavy alcohol consumption comes with a ton of health detriments.
Pertaining to the heart, too much alcohol can increase blood pressure, increase the levels of fat in your bloodstream, and ultimately, lead to heart disease.
Too much alcohol in one sitting (think of the stories about college kids joining frats) can lead to strokes and sudden cardiac arrest.
There is a general consensus that a small amount of red wine has antioxidant benefits that can actually help your heart and fight cancer, and while that may be partially true, dark chocolate has those same benefits.
Bottom line, alcohol in moderation won’t kill you, but it’s definitely not the best thing to be putting into your system.
#21 Pet Therapy
I’m sure, if you own a dog that you know the warm, happy feeling your pet can give you. Unsurprisingly, this feeling goes deep under the surface, and can actually help keep your heart healthy.
Studies have found that dog owners have lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and stress levels than non dog owners, which is the cause of their lower mortality rates by heart disease.
If you can’t properly take care of the animal, don’t get one just because it will help your heart. The heart stuff is just an added perk.
#22 Have Tea
Drinking black or green tea (preferably without added sugar) can help keep your heart healthy, as the plant compounds consist of flavonoids, which are known to reduce inflammation and plaque buildup within your arteries.
Flavonoids are the same chemicals found in red wine that serve as the basis for the red wine argument. Drinking tea may also lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
Like with anything, drink your tea in moderation, as too much can damage your liver.
And while the evidence is more correlational than causational for several of the health benefits I’ve listed, tea isn’t bad for you, so if you feel like warming up on a cold morning, grab a mug and get the water boiling.
#23 Brush Your Teeth
Yeah, this one’s a little weird. But new research has found a link between periodontal disease and cardiovascular disease.
Again, this is a correlational study, not a causational study, so certain factors were not fully accounted for.
However, the link between a healthy mouth and a healthy heart is definitely there. Additionally, gum disease has been found to worsen blood pressure, which we know will never help your heart.
#24 Manage Stress
The links between emotional struggles and their physical manifestations are clear; high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and irritation heavily increase your likelihood of getting heart disease.
Yoga, meditation, exercise, and sleep are all good methods of recognizing this stress, and choosing to not allow it to affect you, thus reducing your anxiety, and calming your body; your blood pressure will go down, and your heart will become healthier.
#25 Find Your Happiness
One of the best things to do for your overall health is to find ways to be happy.
Life is always going to be full of struggles, mountains to climb, trials you must fight through, and tough days, but if you can find ways to maintain long-term happiness, you’ll improve your mental, physical, and heart health.
To Sum It All Up
Maintaining a healthy heart is imperative to overall health and longevity, and, luckily, it’s not that difficult.
All it requires is some commitment and a bit of general knowledge.
So brush your teeth, grab your dog, a bar of dark chocolate, your iPod, and a yoga mat, and do some morning beach meditation to keep that heart pumping hard and strong for as long as possible.
I’m a personal trainer based in Denver (Matrix Gym) and a true fitness nerd. If I’m not training clients or working out at my home gym, I’m probably skiing, cycling or hiking with my dog Rufus.