How to reduce your risk for heart disease in 9 simple steps

November 17, 2020 John Mendoza No Comments


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Heart disease is the No. 1 killer among American men and women. It accounts for about one in four deaths in the US each year. Someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds in the US. These statistics are scary, but science tells us exactly how to turn them around. We have a wealth of information about heart disease prevention at our fingertips. Yet, case numbers remain high.

Preventing heart disease is, in all honesty, easy for people who don’t have preexisting heart conditions. There are challenges, of course: Some people don’t have access to heart-healthy foods and others don’t have the opportunity to see a doctor and get insights about their current health status. 

For the most part, however, the average person can significantly reduce their risk of heart disease with simple lifestyle changes, like the nine steps detailed here.  

1. Take a daily walk


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Decades of research support cardiovascular exercise as a first defense against heart disease. Walking is an easy, simple way to get cardio exercise in, and you can do it pretty much anywhere outdoors or indoors with a treadmill

Studies show that walking can prevent heart disease risk despite being a less intense modality than other forms of cardio exercise, such as hiking, jogging or cycling. Plus, research suggests that more people stick to a walking plan over time versus other types of exercise, which makes walking more effective in the long run (no exercise is effective if you don’t keep it up). 

And you can always make your walk harder if you want to improve your health even further. 

Related: The best treadmills you can buy right now

2. Strength train a few times each week


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Most research on heart health and exercise has focused on aerobic exercise like walking. An emerging body of research points to resistance training as another way to reduce your risk of heart disease. In fact, a 2018 study found that lifting weights for less than one hour a week could reduce your risk for a heart attack or stroke by up to 70% — independent of aerobic exercise, making these results even more significant.  

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, this profound effect probably has something to do with the way weightlifting changes your body composition. Lifting weights helps you build muscle and lose fat. Excess body fat is a major risk factor for heart disease, so any exercise that helps you reduce body fat is helpful. 

You don’t need a gym or fancy equipment to start strength training. Bodyweight exercises, such as air squats, push-ups and lunges, provide the same strengthening benefits at home.

3. Eat heart-healthy foods


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Many delicious foods have a direct link to improved heart health. In general, a diet rich in whole grains, fruit, vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats from nuts, seeds, fish and oils promotes heart health. If you don’t have access to fresh produce, frozen and canned fruits and veggies work just as well (just be mindful of salt intake when eating canned foods). 

The American Heart Association points out the importance of balancing your calorie intake and energy expenditure. Eating healthy is a big part of improving heart health, but so is maintaining a healthy body weight. If you need a template to follow, the DASH Diet, Mayo Clinic Diet, Mediterranean diet and anti-inflammatory diet all include heart-healthy foods. 

4. Limit foods linked to heart disease


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On the flip side, several foods have direct links to heart disease. To reduce your risk of heart disease, limit high-fat and high-sugar foods such as potato chips and store-bought desserts. Highly processed foods, including most fast food, processed meats (think hot dogs and cured meats) and boxed snacks like Twinkies and crackers, also contain ingredients harmful to your heart. 

Specifically, look out for trans fats (hydrogenated oils) and high-fructose corn syrup, two key indicators that a food isn’t great for your heart. Trans fats increase “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides in your blood, while high-fructose corn syrup is a driver of several heart disease risk factors and comorbidities. 

Side note: Don’t be afraid of saturated fat on its own, as research has debunked the myth that saturated fat alone leads to heart disease. Many healthy foods, such as avocados and cheese, contain saturated fats. Processed foods are often high in saturated fat, but it’s more so the trans fats and refined carbohydrates to look out for. 

Related: 8 ways eating too much sugar is bad for your health

5. Quit smoking


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It’s common knowledge by now that smoking is just plain bad for health. Your heart is no exception. According to the Food and Drug Administration, cigarette smoking is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes. 

Smoking impairs your cardiovascular system in a few ways: It leads to plaque buildup in your arteries, changes your blood chemistry and thickens blood, and permanently damages your heart muscle and blood vessels. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute says that even an occasional cigarette can cause substantial damage

6. Limit alcohol intake


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We’re not here to tell you that you can’t enjoy your favorite cocktail or crack a cold one on game day, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the consequences of excess alcohol consumption. Drinking too much is generally bad for all your body systems. 

In regard to heart health specifically, alcohol has been linked to various cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension, coronary artery disease, peripheral artery disease and stroke. However, the exact relationships vary greatly depending on the quantity and pattern of consumption. 

The American Heart Association maintains that drinking in moderation is OK, but once you inch past that mark (one drink per day for women and two for men), things take a turn for the worse. And, no, the link between red wine and heart health isn’t all that clear

7. Keep stress levels low


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More research is needed to understand exactly how stress contributes to heart disease, but scientists have observed a relationship between stress and heart health. For starters, high levels of chronic stress can trigger unhealthy coping habits, such as smoking, drinking alcohol or eating lots of high-fat or high-sugar food. Stress also undermines your body’s ability to rest and sleep

Researchers have even identified a specific and unusual sort of heart attack called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as stress cardiomyopathy and “broken heart syndrome.” This condition has been linked to emotional trauma, but many patients with this condition exhibit no identifiable cause

So, don’t underestimate the impact of stress on your heart. While stress is inevitable and unavoidable at times, it helps to have a handful of stress-relief tactics to rely on in times of extreme duress. 

8. Prioritize sleep


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If there were a miracle drug, sleep would probably be it, with exercise coming in a close second. Scientists have positioned sleep deprivation as a risk factor for heart disease because of inverse relationships between sleep duration and cardiovascular diseases: It seems the less sleep you get, the higher your risk for cardiovascular events. 

Insomnia and sleep apnea have also been linked to heart disease, and sleep duration and quality seem to have a direct effect on blood pressure. Indirectly, sleep deprivation causes people to make poorer food choices and lack motivation to exercise, both of which increase the risk for heart disease. 

Related: Why you should skip your workout if you didn’t get a wink of sleep

9. See your doctor and keep up with health records


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If you’re able to, schedule a yearly checkup with your doctor to make sure all’s in order. 

Getting a blood panel that checks for cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar and other important health markers can help you keep close tabs on your heart health. If you don’t have a primary care doctor, call your nearest urgent care or walk-in clinic to see if it offers basic blood tests. At the very least, checking your blood pressure with an at-home monitor gives you some indication of how you’re doing. Keep track of your health records so you can identify any changes or patterns over time.

If any indication of heart disease arises, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor any questions. Make sure you understand what the numbers mean, what changes you might need to make to your lifestyle, and if you’ll need any medications. Being an advocate for your own health gets you far. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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