How regularly do you show your heart some love? Your heart works hard for you, 24-7, without any conscious effort on your part (thank goodness). But you can — and should — put conscious thought into caring for your heart so it keeps on taking care of you. That’s true self-care.
While many health conditions, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and obstructive sleep apnea, can increase the risk of heart disease, our lifestyle — the sum total of our daily habits — also influences our personal risk. That includes the choices we make about whether to smoke, how much alcohol to drink, when to go to bed, how to handle stress, what to eat and how active to be.
Let’s start with food. A heart-healthy diet includes lots of plants — vegetables, fruits, whole grains, pulses (beans and lentils), nuts and seeds — which offer vitamins and minerals, fiber and phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are compounds in plants that benefit us in a variety of ways, including some that may directly benefit cardiovascular health. What about fat? Research is unequivocal that trans fats (commonly known as partially hydrogenated oils) are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, but the findings are more ambiguous about other types of fat. Generally speaking, the type of fats you find in nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, canola oil and oily fish are heart-healthy ones. To show your heart you care:
- Eat more vegetables. Aim for 4 cups per day, paying special attention to deeply colored vegetables, as these tend to be richer in phytochemicals.
- Eat fish at least twice a week. That’s about 8 ounces total. Prioritize oily fish like salmon, herring, sardines, Atlantic mackerel (not king mackerel) and anchovies, which are rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats.
- Swap refined grains for whole grains most of the time. For example, brown rice instead of white rice, whole-wheat flour instead of white flour. If you like oatmeal, go for regular or thick-cut oats, or the steel-cut variety, instead of instant.
- Choose lean cuts of meat. If you eat meat, go for leaner cuts of beef (sirloin or round) and pork (tenderloin or chop), and trim off visible fat.
- Cut back on foods and beverages that contain added sugars. If you consume soda or other beverages sweetened with sugar in any of its guises — including sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose and maltose — that’s a good place to pare back. If you tend to choose sweets for snacks, or mindlessly eat them, that’s a habit worth changing. However, this isn’t about never having dessert!
Speaking of mindlessness, practices of mindfulness such as meditation and yoga have been shown to benefit health in numerous ways. In fact, a 2017 statement from the American Heart Association said meditation appears to reduce the risk of heart disease, although we need more research to clarify the connection. In the meantime, peace out!
Now, what about physical activity? According to a 2019 statement from the American College of Sports Medicine, meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans significantly reduces the risk of heart disease and death from heart disease. Those guidelines recommend 150 to 300 minutes (2.5 to 5 hours) per week of moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking, or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity, such as running. If that sounds daunting because your activity levels are currently low, take heart: The statement said the benefits of physical activity start building at lower levels of activity — as little as an hour per week of moderate activity — and that any exercise is better than none.