5 Essential Heart Health Habits


Exercise and a healthy diet that minimizes your intake of salt and fat can make all the difference when it comes to heart health.

Heart health is largely within your control. Manageable changes, done gradually, can protect you from many cardiovascular diseases. Taking everyday steps to get enough exercise, practice portion control, reduce salt, and cut fat from your diet can add up to a healthier you.

Heart Health Habit No. 1: Get Moving With Exercise

“The first thing I emphasize is getting regular exercise, five days a week for 30 minutes a day,” says nutritionist Barbara Schmidt, MS, RD, lifestyle specialist at Norwalk Hospital in Connecticut whose practice includes patients in cardiac rehab. “Exercise is medicine and you have to incorporate it into your life. The No. 1 way to raise HDL, the ‘good’ cholesterol, is through exercise — I describe HDL as the Roto-Rooter of the arteries.”

Exercise also helps lower blood pressure and stress levels, both risk factors for heart disease, and contributes to weight loss. Not exercising can put you at greater risk for many health problems, including stroke and heart attack. While a total of 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week is the goal, you can work out in 10-minute sessions. Try walking 10 minutes each way to and from the office and 10 minutes during your lunch hour. If you’re not in good health, get your doctor’s advice before starting an exercise routine.

Heart Health Habit No. 2: Cut Fat for a Healthy Diet

“Cutting fat is the single most important thing you can do for your health and your waistline,” says Schmidt. Fat comes in many forms. The most dangerous are the trans fats, also referred to as partially hydrogenated oils. They extend the shelf life of packaged and processed foods, so look for them on ingredients lists and steer clear of those products. They are also used in restaurants, particularly on the menus of fast food eateries.

Saturated fats are next on the list of fats to avoid. These include full-fat dairy foods and drinks, as well as meat — beef, lamb, and pork, and the skin on poultry, says Schmidt. “You want to substitute monounsaturated fats like olive, canola, and peanut oils and choose fat-free dairy. If it’s hard, make changes gradually — if you use half-and-half in coffee, go to whole milk, then 2 percent, then 1 percent, then skim.”

Heart Health Habit No. 3: Practice Portion Control

More isn’t better, says Schmidt. “Almonds are great, but 6 have almost 50 calories, and a cup of almonds is over 800 calories.” So, if you like munching on nuts for a heart healthy snack, just be aware that too much is not a good thing.

Monounsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil, are good for your health but high in calories. Each teaspoon counts as one serving. Even heart-healthy whole grain carbs like brown rice and whole wheat pasta need to be counted carefully. One serving, Schmidt says, is one-third cup. “If you eat 1 cup, you need to count it as three servings.”Try using your hand to help with portion control, when measuring cups aren’t available. A closed fist equals the volume of 1 cup; the amount you could hold in a cupped hand is one-half cup; the size and thickness of your palm is about 3 ounces; think of your thumb as 1 tablespoon, and the tip of your thumb as 1 teaspoon.

Heart Health Habit No. 4: Eat “Functional Foods”

Power your diet with foods that improve heart health. “Try to incorporate soy and soy protein — they are wonderful for your heart. They lower cholesterol and the bad LDL (low-density lipoprotein) in particular, and can raise HDL (high-density lipoprotein),” says Schmidt. She recommends foods such as edamame and soy milk, or trying soy flour in recipes.

And don’t forget the omega-3 fatty acids; they also raise the good HDL cholesterol. So, eat fish two to four times a week, especially deep coldwater fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines, suggests Schmidt.

High fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils, and whole grains also improve heart health. There are two types of fiber, the soluble fiber that binds with cholesterol and prevents the body from absorbing it and the insoluble fiber that aids digestion, and you want both. “Look carefully at the fiber content on labels. For instance, steel cut oatmeal is high in soluble fiber, instant oatmeal is not.”

Heart Health Habit No. 5: Reduce Salt

Sodium, or salt, naturally exists in foods, even the spinach you pick fresh from your garden, says Schmidt. Now consider all the added salt used in processing canned, packaged, and prepared foods, as a preservative and to enhance taste. “We do need 500 milligrams of sodium a day, but the problem is we’re getting so much more than that,” says Schmidt.

One teaspoon of salt has 2,300 milligrams (mg), the maximum daily amount recommended for most people; that number drops to 1,500 for those with high blood pressure, people in middle age and beyond, and African Americans who are at greater risk of high blood pressure.

Salt causes your body to retain water and your heart to work harder, leading to high blood pressure, a cardiovascular disease that is also a risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke. Salt comes in many chemical compositions; when reading labels to reduce salt, look to avoid foods that contain ingredients like sodium (including monosodium glutamate or MSG), soda and Na, sodium’s chemical symbol, in the name.

Because high blood pressure and high cholesterol don’t show symptoms, regular check-ups are important, even when you feel fine. They detect elevated levels before damage can be done. And if you are prescribed medication to control these conditions, the very best heart health habit is to stick to your treatment plan.

Inspired by Julie Davis

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