Every second of the day, your heart is hard at work pumping blood throughout your body. It’s pumping as you work out, as you sleep, even as you read this on your screen right now. Your heart is essential to your survival — but it’s easy to take this important organ for granted.
Heart disease is when your heart and blood vessels don’t work like they should, and includes conditions like heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).
Many of these problems are caused by a buildup of plaque (fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances) in your arteries. This plaque makes it harder for blood to get to your heart, and in some cases, it can completely block blood flow. Eventually, it can lead to a heart attack or stroke.
There are some heart disease risk factors that you can’t change, such as your age or family history. But there are other factors that are in your control — and simple, effective ways to improve your heart health on your own. By avoiding these habits and committing to a heart-healthy lifestyle, you can lower your risk of heart disease.
Here are 5 habits that affect your heart health — and why.
1. Smoking — and not just cigarettes.
Smoking is one of the three major risk factors (along with high blood pressure and high cholesterol) for heart disease that physicians have known about since the 1960s, but it’s still the cause of almost one-third of deaths from heart disease.
Every time you inhale a cigarette, you’re putting over 5,000 chemicals into your body — many of which are harmful to your health. One of these chemicals is carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide decreases the amount of oxygen in your red blood cells, which damages your heart. It also increases the amount of cholesterol in your arteries — another risk factor for heart disease.
Some people use e-cigarettes — sometimes called “vaping” — to quit smoking cigarettes. However, there’s not enough evidence to prove that e-cigarettes are a healthy alternative. By using an e-cigarette, you’re still exposing yourself to nicotine, toxins, metals, and other contaminants — all of which are dangerous to your health.
The most effective way to lower your risk is to quit completely. While this may be challenging, it’s more difficult to live with heart disease or to recover from a heart attack.
2. Dining out — every night.
It can be tempting — and sometimes easier — to join your friends for dinner or grab a pizza on the way home from working late. However, your heart is not going to appreciate your unhealthy food choices.
Good nutrition can go a long way toward lowering your risk for heart disease. The food you put into your body directly affects risk factors, including cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, and being overweight. By monitoring the food you eat, and the amount, you can positively impact how well your heart functions.
Eating a heart-healthy diet doesn’t mean you can’t go out for dinner. There are some simple ways to make eating at a restaurant healthier:
- Look up the nutritional info on the menus at a few different restaurants — and choose one with some healthier options.
- Say no to the freebies, such as bread before dinner or a cocktail with dinner. Many of these can add fat, sugar, sodium, and calories that are unhealthy for your heart.
- Ask for alternatives in your meals. Try swapping your fries for a salad or fruit for dessert.
- Choose a smaller option, such as the lunch portion, or split a meal with a friend.
- See if you can have healthier nontropical oils (such as canola or olive oil) used to cook your meal instead of things like butter or coconut oil.
- Request that unhealthy toppings, such as dressing, cheese, and sauces are kept on the side so you can control how much you eat.
The key to maintaining a healthy diet is moderation. It’s okay to enjoy a nice steak dinner every once in a while, but it’s important to limit those outings and keep them as heart-healthy as possible.
3. Not staying active.
There are many reasons why you may not be as active as you should be. Whether you don’t have enough time or can’t find an activity that you enjoy, it can be challenging to find an exercise routine that sticks.
However, exercising regularly is key to maintaining your heart health. Just 150 minutes per week — which is only about 20 minutes a day — of moderate-intensity physical activity (such as walking briskly or playing tennis) can lower your cholesterol, lower your blood pressure, and help you maintain a healthy weight. It can also make your heart muscle stronger so it pumps more effectively.
When it comes to exercise, a little bit is better than nothing. If you’re not very active right now, start slow. Find ways to include activity throughout your day. Try to make exercise fun, too. If it’s boring and you dread working out, you may have trouble staying consistent.
Some simple ways you can stay active include:
- Walking short distances rather than driving
- Taking the stairs instead of the elevator
- Going for a long walk with your dog, partner, or best friend
- Playing a team sport, such as volleyball or softball
- Working out with a group, such as a running or biking club
- Joining a gym that has group fitness classes
- Finding a workout partner who can help keep you accountable
There are plenty of ways to incorporate activity into your daily routine. Find out what works for you and stick with it.
4. Getting too stressed out.
Whether you’re overloaded at work or you’re juggling your kids’ busy schedules, it’s easy to become stressed. Unfortunately, in addition to being burdensome, stress can put you at a higher risk for heart disease. Stress can raise your blood pressure, which puts more strain on your heart and arteries and cause permanent damage.
Stress can also lead to some unhealthy ways of coping, such as overeating, heavy drinking, and smoking — all of which are unhealthy for your heart.
By taking some steps to reduce your stress levels, not only will you help your heart, but you’ll also feel better. Some ways you can manage your stress include:
- Listening to music
- Practicing meditation or yoga
- Writing in a journal
- Enjoying some alone time
Some stress may be unavoidable, and it’s normal to be more stressed at certain times in your life. Try to limit the amount of stress you experience on a daily basis — your heart will thank you for it.
5. Having a few too many cocktails.
While the occasional glass of wine with dinner or beer with friends is okay, over-drinking can be dangerous for your heart. It can increase your risk of heart disease by raising your blood pressure, which can cause damage to your heart and arteries over time.
Alcohol can also lead to a high level of triglycerides, which are the most common type of fat in your body. The calories in alcohol adds up. When your body has too many calories, it changes them into triglyceride, which can raise your risk of heart disease.
The calories in alcohol can also make you gain weight, contributing to obesity — another risk factor for heart disease.
Men shouldn’t have more than two drinks a day, and women should limit themselves to one. Just like with a healthy diet, moderation is key. If you find that you are regularly drinking more than the recommended amount, you may want to cut back on the alcohol and switch to something that’s better for your heart.
Your Heart Health Starts With You
While your physician can help you maintain your heart health with regular checkups, your heart health begins at home, where you make choices every day that impact your heart. There are many easy but effective ways to make sure you’re keeping your heart’s health a priority.
Your heart is always working hard for you — but you can make its job a little easier and a lot more effective with a healthy, heart-centered lifestyle.