How To Improve Heart Health – Forbes Health

Editor’s Note: In “Hey, Health Coach,” Sarah Hays Coomer answers reader questions about the intersection of health and overall well-being. Have a question? Send her a message (and don’t forget to use a sleuthy pseudonym!).

Hey, Health Coach,

My dad had a heart attack this month. He’s okay, but it scared me because my grandfather on my dad’s side also had heart issues. I’m only 35 years old, but I’d really like to avoid this problem when I’m older. What are the most important things I can do now to protect my heart health?

— Bad Genes

Dear Bad Genes,

Watching a parent go through a health crisis can be so scary. I’m sorry to hear what happened and glad to know your dad is okay.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a family history of heart disease does increase your risk of developing it yourself. However, heart disease has been extensively researched, and a lot can be done to reduce your risk—especially when you start young and approach the question with an eye on prevention. The fact that you’re thinking about it at age 35 could go a long way toward protecting your health.

Let’s explore how lifestyle choices, health screenings and a few other considerations can support your heart health well into the future.

A Heart-Healthy Diet

One of the most important things you can do to protect your heart is eat well, but there’s a broad misunderstanding about what “eating well” actually means. Should we all eat a low-fat diet? Go vegan? How about keto, paleo or gluten-free? Perhaps we should try intermittent fasting.

Research shows most diets can be adapted to be healthier for your heart. In other words, your diet isn’t a pass-or-fail proposition, and you don’t need to adhere strictly to one specific approach to take good care of yourself. There’s no singular answer for everyone, and every bit of fresh, nourishing food you eat contributes to your long-term well-being.

In my experience with coaching clients, it’s a lot easier to add healthy things to your diet than to focus on stripping away the “bad” ones. Certainly, eating lots of red meat and fried food isn’t going to help your heart, but if you can learn how to fill up on healthier foods you love, you may be less likely to overdo it with burgers and fries.

The Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet are two of the most well-researched heart-healthy diets.

  • The Mediterranean diet includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, olive oil, nuts and seeds. Dairy products, eggs, fish and poultry can also be included in moderate amounts, and this diet allows small amounts of alcohol (usually wine) and sweets.
  • The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet includes many of the same elements as the Mediterranean diet, but it also emphasizes the importance of low sodium and foods high in potassium, magnesium and calcium. The DASH diet also recommends avoiding alcohol and sweets.

Incorporating elements of either of these diets could prove useful for your cardiovascular health, but remember to make any changes with your own body and circumstances in mind. There is no “perfect” diet, but a good place to start is by increasing your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables and reducing the amount of high-sodium foods and saturated fat you consume.

Exercise

Physical activity is also important for a healthy heart. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends adults get 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or at least 75 minutes of vigorous activity. Additionally, it recommends adding moderate- to high-intensity strength training twice a week to your routine.

Those goals might seem like a big commitment, but keep in mind that a little bit of exercise is better than none. Even if you can’t meet those recommendations, every time you move can help support your heart health.

  • The AHA’s recommendations can be spread out over the course of a week, and you can craft a schedule to meet your personal goals and responsibilities. If working out for an hour three times a week seems overwhelming, you could take a 20-minute walk each night after dinner or insert short spurts of aerobic activity or strength training throughout your day. For example, take the stairs at your office, or do a few sets of squats first thing in the morning or pushups before bed.
  • Be realistic and gracious with yourself. Going from zero exercise to 150 minutes a week could feel like too much, so—depending on your current fitness level—start with activities that feel good and make sense. You can always build and expand on them over time.
  • Find ways to connect physical activity with family, friends or colleagues. Make it a normal part of the day, and get together to make it more fun. Take walking meetings, meet a friend at the gym, ride bikes or play ball with your kids. Join a local sports team, try pickleball or experiment with a variety of fitness classes or apps until you find something you love. When you make exercise enjoyable, it’s a lot more likely to stick.

Sleep

According to a study of over 60,000 people in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, short sleep duration (less than six hours per night) and poor sleep quality defined by “dreamy” sleep, difficulty falling asleep or use of sleeping pills are associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Getting enough sleep is no small task. Conditions like sleep apnea should be addressed by a health care provider, but numerous factors at home can help create a healthy sleep routine:

  • Minimize light and noise exposure.
  • Exercise earlier in the day, or finish your workout at least two hours before going to bed.
  • Eat enough at dinner to be satisfied but not so much that you’re stuffed.
  • Establish reliable times for falling asleep and waking up.

Stress

Stress is also a risk factor for heart disease. Stress can cause inflammation in the body and increase blood pressure and stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. Beyond those immediate physiological factors, stress can also create a domino effect for lifestyle choices like the ones mentioned above: diet, exercise and sleep, among others.

We can’t always control the stressors in our lives, but there are a lot of things we can do to find relief.

  • Carve out a recurring time to connect with someone you love.
  • Reach out to a therapist or physician for help.
  • Get outside for some fresh air.
  • Move your body in any way that feels good.
  • Take up a hobby.
  • Clear clutter from your home.
  • Volunteer for a cause you believe in.
  • Practice meditation or mindful breathing.
  • Establish breaks in your day or week for reliable activities that help you relax.

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Smoking and Drinking

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that smoking and drinking alcohol can be damaging for your heart. In a 2022 study of over 370,000 people, alcohol consumption at all levels increased risk of coronary artery disease and high blood pressure, but the risks for high consumption (more than seven drinks per week) were much more damaging than low consumption (zero to seven drinks per week). It appears that less alcohol is better, and moderation matters.

If you’d like to quit or cut back on tobacco, drugs or alcohol use, seek help from a professional. FindTreatment.gov and SmokeFree.gov are great places to start establishing healthier habits.

Health Screenings

You have a lot of power to improve your health through lifestyle choices, but—as you mentioned—there are also genetic factors you can’t control.

Modern medicine has made enormous strides in treating cardiovascular disease, but doctors can’t help if they don’t see you regularly or know your circumstances. To stay on the safe side:

  • Get medical check-ups annually or as often as needed.
  • Communicate with health care providers about your family history and any symptoms you’re experiencing.
  • Discuss common heart health screenings and tests like blood pressure measurements, cholesterol levels, blood glucose screenings and coronary calcium scans.
  • If your health care provider prescribes medications to protect your heart, be sure to take them as directed and let your doctor know about any uncomfortable side effects.

Social Support

It sounds like you’re aware of the risks, Bad Genes, and you’re interested in doing whatever you can to take care of your heart.

One last thing to keep in mind: Social support is strongly associated with positive health outcomes. Aside from eating healthy food, exercising and decompressing whenever possible, maybe you and your dad can find ways to do some of those things together.

Being together could do a lot of good for your heart—and for his.

“Hey, Health Coach” is for informational purposes only and should not substitute for professional psychological or medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions about your personal situation, health or medical condition.

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