According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), heart disease is responsible for around one-quarter of all deaths in the United States. In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. Even if you’ve already been diagnosed, though, making healthy lifestyle changes today can help protect your heart. The following heart healthy habits can help reduce your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
Stop Smoking for Your Heart
Smoking is famous for being bad for your lungs, but did you know that it also damages your cardiovascular system? It’s true. Compared to non-smokers, smokers are more than twice as likely to develop heart disease.
There are two main ways that smoking impacts heart health. First, inhaling all that carbon monoxide reduces oxygen levels in your blood. At the same time, it increases cholesterol deposits in your arteries. Second, nicotine constricts your arteries, making it harder for your heart to pump blood through them. Researchers also think nicotine may harden arteries. The result is your body has an increased need for oxygen but a decreased ability to supply it.
Thankfully, when you quit smoking, your body immediately begins to heal itself. That’s not an exaggeration. Within 20 minutes of quitting, your blood pressure and heart rate both decrease. After 12 hours, carbon monoxide levels in your blood return to normal. Once you go 12 months without smoking, your cardiovascular disease risk is only half that of a smoker. In five years, your stroke risk is the same as if you’d never lit a cigarette. And within 15 years, your heart disease risk is the same as a lifelong non-smoker.
When you quit smoking, you also protect the hearts of those you love. That’s because regular exposure to secondhand smoke raises your risk of heart disease by more than 25 percent. The American Heart Association estimates that secondhand smoke contributes to over 34,000 heart disease deaths every year.
Talk to your doctor about quitting. Having a plan in place significantly improves your odds of success.
Be More Physically Active
It’s no secret that the average American has become much more sedentary in recent years. Many of us work desk jobs, which keep us sitting for eight or more hours a day. Add in commute time and all the hours the average person spends in sedentary habits and hobbies and it’s no wonder our health has declined.
Even if you exercise regularly, if your overall lifestyle is sedentary, your risk of heart attack and deep vein thrombosis are both dramatically higher. And you’re nearly twice as likely to die prematurely due to heart disease.
Regular activity helps reduce your risk. If you work in an office, get up and walk around every hour or so. Walk a few laps around the building. Take the stairs. Park farther away. Ask for a standing workstation. Get creative about getting active.
In addition, you need at least 150 minutes of exercise each week – at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week. That’s the minimum; shoot for 300 minutes each week of moderate exercise. If your workouts are more vigorous, you can get away with 75 to 150 minutes. In addition to cardio workouts, make sure to do some strength training at least twice a week. That can be any weight-bearing exercise, such as walking and jogging, but may also be weightlifting.
Get Plenty of Quality Sleep
Lack of sleep presents a serious health risk. Researchers have linked it to increased risk of a variety of chronic conditions, including diabetes, obesity, depression, and yes, heart disease.
The average adult needs between seven and nine hours of sleep. You know you’re getting enough sleep when you wake naturally, without an alarm clock, and feel refreshed. When the snooze button is your best friend, that’s a sign you need more sleep.
Sticking to a sleep schedule helps ensure you get plenty of quality sleep. If you know what time you need to wake each morning, start your bedtime routine around nine to ten hours before then. That gives you time to complete all those before-bed tasks and wind down, making it easier to fall asleep.
Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet. These all signify to your body that it’s time to sleep. Also, don’t use your bed for anything but sex and sleep. That sends your body another signal that it’s time to sleep.
Turn off electronics at least an hour before bed. Instead, try reading a book, journaling, or meditating to relax your mind and body and prepare them for sleep.
If you’ve done all of this but can’t sleep, or if you sleep the night through but still feel tired, you may have sleep apnea. Signs include loud snoring, waking repeatedly during the night, problems with memory, and waking with a sore throat, dry mouth, or headache. Talk to your doctor.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
Obesity is another risk factor for heart disease. Doctors typically determine whether your weight is healthy based on your body mass index (BMI).
Excess weight strains all of your bodily functions, but especially your heart. Researchers still aren’t sure whether the simple fact of being obese is what raises your risk or if the obesity-causing habits are to blame. (Diet and exercise play a large role in heart health.) It may be a combination of the two.
If you’re overweight, talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes you can make to reach a healthy weight. For permanent weight loss, the goal is to lose no more than two pounds per week.
Follow a Healthy Diet
One of the best ways to improve overall health is by following a healthy diet. Please note that, when we say diet, we mean permanent eating habits. In this context, diet does not refer to short-term changes to lose weight.
A healthy diet is rich in fruits and vegetables and includes moderate amounts of lean protein, grains, and healthy fats. You also want to cut out processed foods as much as possible. These items are loaded with “bad” fats and empty calories.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends half your plate be covered with fruits and vegetables, with the other half split evenly between lean protein and grains (preferably whole grain), and a small serving of dairy on the side. Their My Plate graphic (seen above) perfectly illustrates their dietary recommendations.
Our post, Small Tricks to Healthy Eating, offers great advice for implementing new healthy eating habits.
If you’re ready to implement healthy lifestyle changes, schedule an appointment with your doctor. He or she knows your current health levels and is best-equipped to advise you on making sustainable changes.