As a cardiologist, I talk about lifestyle and heart health every day. Patents frequently ask me what changes they can make to improve their heart health. I know that many of my patients are not ready for big changes in their health habits, but that’s ok! Here are 10 small changes that can make a BIG difference for your heart.
- Eat 1 more fruit or veggie a day (than you normally do). This alone will benefit your body in so many ways. Diets high in fruits and vegetables improve overall nutrition, helps manage weight, can lower blood pressure, improve blood sugar control, prevent some types of cancer, and reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. As you get used to eating more of these foods, your eventual goal should be to fill half of your plate with fruits and veggies each meal.
- Eat less meat. Reducing meat consumption reduces your risk of many diseases and can greatly improve your heart health. (It also leaves more room on your plate for the fruits and vegetables we talked about earlier.) Besides being good for your heart and body, eating less meat is also the single best thing you can do for the environment. You don’t need to go vegan immediately. But consider starting out with a Meatless Monday each week.
- Eat a balanced breakfast. This is one I think many people would like to do; they just run out of time. I understand, when we get busy it is tempting to let our health slide. But consider this: A study published in the journal Circulation followed over 26,000 initially healthy men for 16 years. After adjusting for age, they found that those skipping breakfast were at 33% greater risk of developing coronary heart disease than those who ate breakfast daily.
- Drive by the drive through. In this tip, I’m lumping processed foods and sugary stuff in with the fast food. These foods are full of empty calories and laden with salt, sugar, unhealthy oils, and other additives. If you are in a hurry eat simple things like sandwiches, fresh fruit, or healthy granola bars. After a few weeks your cravings will start to change, and you will be left with healthier habits.
- Eat whole foods, not supplements. Save your money. The best pills available cannot compete with what nature provides for us. Sticking to fresh, whole foods is also a way to ensure you are getting what you paid for. If you didn’t hear the news, the New York State attorney general’s office found that many supplements did not contain their advertised ingredients.
- Drink (more) water. DON’T drink your calories. This is another easy one. Sugary drinks like sodas and fruit juices have a terrible effect on health and are a sure way to pile on the pounds. Also, be sure you are drinking enough water throughout the day—at least 8 glasses. Studies have shown that people who drink more water have less death from coronary heart disease than those who drink very little.
- Schedule “cheat days” day (or perhaps one meal) a week, to not use up all of your willpower. This will give you something to look forward to. It can also help you to resist making bad choices at other meals since you know you’re going to reward yourself sometime in the near future. Why eat that so-so desert when you know you’re going to get something you really like later in the week?
- Sleep. Try to get 30-60 more minutes a night. Sleep is essential for a healthy heart. In fact, not getting enough sleep greatly increases an individual’s risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. To get the most out of the hours you are sleeping, check out these tips to better sleep.
- Get more active. Even 10 minutes a day makes a difference. Your body was designed to be active. Although it may not be possible to move all the time at your desk job, you can still get up and walk around for a few minutes every hour. This will help you avoid sitting disease (also called hypokinetic disease).
- Schedule exercise time each day and protect it. If you make exercising a habit, it will be easy to keep it up. Exercise is known to reduce the incidence of heart disease and stroke, besides many other health benefits. Exercise also improves your concentration, gives you energy, and helps you get better sleep. Even walking is good exercise; not being a triathlete is no excuse. Just get up and do something.
Think of food and exercise as your “medical therapy,” because it is. Your body and your doctor will thank you for it.