100 Simple Things You Can Do Right Now To Protect Your Heart
With doctor’s offices busier than ever, you’re lucky if you get 20 minutes with your Dr. Which is why it’s not surprising that even when it comes to your most vital organ, the advice you receive can sound somewhat boilerplate: Exercise regularly, watch your diet, don’t smoke, and limit your drinking. But how can the average guy put those prescriptions into practice? And is there anything else you should be doing to protect your heart?
We combed thousands of scientific studies and queried the nation’s top cardiologists to compile a list of the most important advice you’ll ever read: 100 tips, tricks, and techniques for protecting your heart. Make them part of your life, and you may just live long enough to see the United States pay its national debt, the Cubs win the World Series, and Madonna retire.
Grill a Steak
You may think it’s bad for your heart, but you’d be wrong. Beef contains immunity-boosting selenium as well as homocysteine-lowering B vitamins. And up to 50 percent of the fat is the heart-healthy monounsaturated variety.
Watch a Scary Movie
Anything that causes your heart to race—slasher flicks, a good book, even being in love—also makes your heart stronger, according to researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre. Upsetting the rhythm once in a while is like hitting your heart’s reset button, which helps it keep on ticking.
Run Indoors on Hazy Days
Researchers in Finland found that exercising outside on hot, hazy days when air pollution is at its worst can cut the supply of oxygen in the blood, making it more likely to clot.
Tell Your Wife to Butt Out
Or you may leave her—in a hearse. Researchers in Greece found that individuals who were exposed to cigarette smoke for just 30 minutes three times a week had a 26 percent greater risk of developing heart disease than people who rarely encountered second-hand smoke.
Dive in the Pool
U.K. researchers found that men who burn just 50 calories a day in strenuous activities like swimming and hiking are 62 percent less likely to die of heart disease than men who burn nearly seven times as many calories—340 per day—during less active pursuits like walking and golfing.
Fight Cholesterol with Fat
A group of 17 Australian men with high cholesterol swapped macadamia nuts for 15 percent of the calories in their diets, and their total cholesterol dropped by between 3 and 5 percent, while their HDL (good) cholesterol rose by nearly 8 percent. The reason: Macadamias are the best natural source of monounsaturated fat.
Related: 3 Ways To Beat A Heart Attack
Bike Away the Blues
Men who are suffering from depression are more than twice as likely to develop heart disease as guys who aren’t depressed. So c’mon, get happy. In a trial of 150 men and women, Duke researchers found that after just 3 months of treatment, antidepressants and exercise were equally effective at relieving almost all symptoms of depression.
Meditate 20 Minutes a Day
According to Thomas Jefferson University researchers, this daily downtime may reduce your anxiety and depression by more than 25 percent. And that’s important, since a University of Florida study found that patients with coronary artery disease who had the most mental stress were three times more likely to die during the period of the study than those with the least stress.
Buy a Punching Bag
A Harvard study found that men who express their anger have half the risk of heart disease compared with men who internalize it.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that regular aspirin consumption cut the risk of coronary heart disease by 28 percent in people who had never had a heart attack or stroke, but were at heightened risk. For maximum impact on your blood pressure, take a low dose just before bed.
Drink Cranberry Juice
University of Scranton scientists found that volunteers who drank three 240ml glasses a day for a month increased their HDL-cholesterol levels by 10 percent, enough to cut heart-disease risk by almost 40 percent. Buy 100 percent juice that’s at least 27 percent cranberry.
Rise and Dine
In a study of 3,900 people, Harvard researchers found that men who ate breakfast every day were 44 percent less likely to be overweight and 41 percent less likely to develop insulin resistance, both risk factors for heart disease.
Fortify with Folic Acid
A study published in the British Medical Journal found that people who consume the recommended amount each day have a 16 percent lower risk of heart disease than those whose diets are lacking in this B vitamin. Good sources of folic acid: asparagus, broccoli, and fortified cereal.
Take the Stairs
People who walked an extra 4,000 to 5,000 steps each day lowered their blood pressure by an average of 11 points, according to a small study at the University of Tennessee.
Order a Chef’s Salad
Leafy greens and egg yolks are both good sources of lutein, a phytochemical that carries heart-disease-fighting antioxidants to your cells and tissues.
Refill the Bowl
A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that two servings of whole-grain cereal (Cheerios count) a day can reduce a man’s risk of dying of heart disease by nearly 20 percent.
Drink More Tea
An American Heart Association study found that men who drank 2 cups of tea a day were 25 percent less likely to die of heart disease than guys who rarely touched the stuff. The reason: flavonoids in the tea, which not only improve blood vessels’ ability to relax, but also thin the blood, reducing clotting.
Measure BP After Exercise
Ask your doctor to measure your blood pressure after a cardiac stress test. “The numbers will be higher, but studies show they’ll also be a better indicator of your overall health,” says Kerry Stewart, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University.
Drinks that contain caffeine increase blood pressure by nearly 4 points, on top of speeding up your heart rate by an average of 2 beats per minute. It’s enough to push a borderline heart problem into the danger zone.
Join a Group
Any group. According to research from the University of Chicago, lonely people have a harder time dealing with stress and are at greater risk of heart disease than people with a wide circle of friends.
Choose Dark Chocolate
Cocoa contains flavonoids that thin the blood and keep it from clotting (like it does just before you clutch your chest and expire). And at least a third of the fat in chocolate is oleic acid, which is the same healthy, monounsaturated fat found in olive oil. Dove dark chocolate bars retain as many flavonoids as possible.
Trade the Salt for Mrs. Dash
A 20-year study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that overweight men with the highest sodium intakes were 61 percent more likely to die of heart disease than those with lower intakes.
Have a Drink Every Other Day
A Boston study of 38,000 men found that men who drink alcohol three or four times a week have a 32 percent lower risk of heart attack than men who drink less than once a week. Moderate amounts of alcohol raise HDL cholesterol levels and keep the blood thin, reducing the threat of artery-clogging clots. Drinking more frequently is fine (up to the limit at which your friends—or the state police—gather and confront you), but won’t provide additional heart protection, the study’s authors report.
Ten minutes of skin-to-skin contact (hand-holding, hugs) with your mate can help keep your blood pressure and pulse from spiking during stressful times, according to University of North Carolina researchers.
Double the Tomato Sauce
The lycopene in tomatoes prevents the harmful build-up of cholesterol on artery walls. So double up the sauce on your pizza and pasta.
Get Your Daily B Vitamins
A study at the Cleveland Clinic found that men with diets low in B vitamins were more than twice as likely to develop heart disease as men with higher levels in their systems.
Go Fishing for Tuna
Omega-3 fats in tuna help strengthen heart muscle, lower blood pressure, and prevent clotting—as well as reduce levels of potentially deadly inflammation in the body. Plus, tuna’s high in protein. Research shows that consuming more protein may lower a man’s risk of heart disease by nearly 26 percent. Add Ground Flaxseed to Your Food. It’s a natural source of omega-3s, for men who don’t like fish.
“Losing as little as 5 to 10 percent of your body weight will reduce your visceral-fat stores by 25 to 40 percent,” says Jean-Pierre Despres, a professor of human nutrition at Laval University in Quebec City. A study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that doing fartlek—alternating speeds throughout your run—helps you lose weight faster than moving at a steady pace.
Take Up Rowing
A study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that, compared with running, rowing uses more muscle and causes your heart to pump more blood through the body, resulting in greater overall gains in cardiovascular fitness.
Schedule a Flu Shot
A New England Journal of Medicine study found that people who’d been vaccinated against the flu were also 19 percent less likely to be hospitalized for heart disease than people who hadn’t gotten the shot.
Be a Sponge
Loma Linda University researchers found that drinking five or more 240ml glasses of water a day could help lower your risk of heart disease by up to 60 percent—exactly the same drop you get from stopping smoking, lowering your LDL (bad) cholesterol numbers, exercising, or losing a little weight.
One a day can reduce arterial narrowing by 46 percent, lower your bad-cholesterol level by more than 10 percent, and help drop your blood pressure by more than 5 points.
Order Garlic Bread
In addition to lowering cholesterol and helping to fight off infection, eating garlic may help limit damage to your heart after a heart attack or heart surgery. Researchers in India found that animals who were fed garlic regularly had more heart-protecting antioxidants in their blood than animals who weren’t.
Top Your Toast
Black currant jelly is a good source of quercetin—an antioxidant that Finnish researchers believe may improve heart health by preventing the build-up of the free radicals that can damage arterial walls and allow plaque to penetrate.
Scramble an Egg
They’re relatively low in saturated fat, and they’re packed with betaine, a compound that helps lower homocysteine levels in the blood by as much as 75 percent. Eggs are one of the few good food sources of betaine.
According to new research from Harvard, men with low levels of chromium in their systems are significantly more likely to develop heart problems. You need between 200 and 400 micrograms of chromium per day—more than you’re likely to get from your regular diet. “Look for a supplement labelled chromium picolinate—it’s the most easily absorbed by the body,” says Gary Evans, Ph.D., a chromium expert.
Do More Crunches
A study of 8,000 Canadians found that individuals who could do the most situps in 1 minute were also the least likely to die over a period of 13 years. The reason? Strong abs equal more muscle and less belly fat, and the less abdominal fat you have, the lower your risk of heart disease becomes.
Don’t Double Dip
Heart patients who took ibuprofen along with their aspirin had a nearly 75 percent higher risk of premature death than those taking only aspirin, according to a study, conducted in Scotland, of more than 7,000 participants.
Married men are less likely to die of heart disease than bachelors. Toronto-based researchers studied 100 men and women with mild high blood pressure and found that after 3 years of marriage, the happily married men had healthier hearts than their unmarried brothers. Just choose your bride wisely, or your heart will be broken and sick.
They Really Are Good for Your Heart
Beans are a great source of homocysteine-lowering folate and cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber. Tulane University researchers found that people who ate four or more servings a week had a 22 percent lower risk of developing heart disease (and 75 percent fewer camping companions) than less-than-once-a-week bean eaters.
Lots of Chinese and Indian foods contain ginger or turmeric—spices packed with natural anti-inflammatories. “Anything that helps keep levels of inflammation low is good for your heart,” says Andrew Weil, M.D., author of Eating Well for Optimum Health.
Wash Your Hands
German researchers followed 570 people for an average of 3 years and found that those with the most antibodies (from fighting off infections) in their systems also had the most significant clogging in the arteries of their hearts, necks, and legs. Use liquid soap. Germs can live on bars.
Read a Good Book
Swiss researchers found that men who recited poetry for half an hour a day lowered their heart rates significantly, reducing their stress levels and possibly their heart-disease risk. You don’t need to go all Emily Dickinson; just try reading aloud to your wife or kids instead. Or to yourself. (But not on the subway.)
Swap Honey for Sugar
Researchers at the University of Illinois found that honey has powerful antioxidant qualities that help combat cardiovascular disease, while sugar consumption can lower your levels of HDL cholesterol, potentially increasing your risk of heart-related disorders.
Researchers at Harvard kept tabs on 1,300 healthy men for 10 years. At the end of the study, they found that individuals with the most positive attitudes at the start of the trial were half as likely to have experienced heart problems as men with more negative attitudes.
Finish Your Degree
California researchers found that women with 4-year or advanced degrees have a lower risk of heart disease than those who are less educated. The benefit comes from moving up the earnings ladder.
Any regular vigorous physical activity reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease, even if performed for only 5 to 10 minutes at a time, says John Yarnell, Ph.D., of Queen’s University of Belfast, who authored a study on the subject.
Pee in the Bushes
After studying 40 people with heart disease, researchers at Taiwan University in China found that the stress of having a full bladder increases heart rate by an average of 9 beats per minute and constricts the flow of blood by 19 percent. Either could be enough to trigger a heart attack, says study author Tsai Chang-Her, M.D.
Use the Rotisserie
Foods cooked at high temperatures produce blood compounds called advanced glycation end products, which researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital say reduce cell elasticity and increase heart-disease risk. Three fixes: Steam your vegetables, add marinade to your meat before grilling to keep it moist, and cook foods longer at lower temperatures.
Buy a Dog
All that love (“You’re a good boy, yes you are!”) and aggravation (“Bad dog! No eat Daddy’s hot dog!”) makes your heart more adaptable and better able to deal with the stress that can lead to heart disease.
In a study of half a million people, doctors at Lille University in France found that cold spells that decrease the temperature by more than 7°C from one day to the next can increase heart-attack risk by as much as 13 percent.
Don’t Let Your Tank Hit Empty
A study in the British Medical Journal found that people who eat six or more small meals a day have 5 percent lower cholesterol levels than those who eat one or two large meals. That’s enough to shrink your risk of heart disease by 10 to 20 percent.
Build an Iron Heart
Harvard researchers found that lifting weights 30 minutes a week is enough to reduce your risk of heart disease by 23 percent.
Stop at 2 Cups
Dutch researchers found that people who drank roughly 4 cups of coffee a day had 11 percent higher levels of heart-damaging homocysteine in their blood than non-coffee drinkers.
Check for Carbon Monoxide
Almost all large household appliances, including furnaces, water heaters, washers, dryers, and fireplaces, can leak carbon monoxide into your home. Large levels of the gas can kill you in hours, but long-term exposure to tiny amounts can be just as lethal, promoting the formation of blood clots and increasing the risk of heart disease. So make sure vents are clear and appliances are properly ventilated, and install a carbon monoxide detector near your bedroom.
Rinse your mouth with Cool Mint Listerine and brush with Colgate Total toothpaste. They’ll reduce oral bacteria, which can decrease your risk of a heart attack by 200 to 300 percent, according to University of Buffalo researchers.
Snack on Nuts
Harvard researchers found that men who replaced 127 calories of carbohydrates—that’s about 14 Baked Lays potato chips—with 1 ounce of nuts decreased their risk of heart disease by 30 percent.
Knock Off Before Nightline
A 10-year study of 70,000 women found that those who get 5 or fewer hours of sleep on a regular basis have a nearly 40 percent greater risk of heart disease than those who sleep a full 8 hours. One possible reason: Research shows that people who are exhausted have higher levels of fibrinogen, a blood-clotting protein that can drastically reduce blood flow to the heart and brain.
You Don’t Want Fries with That
In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the exercise and nutritional habits of 80,000 women were recorded for 14 years. The researchers found that the most important correlate of heart disease was the women’s dietary intake of foods containing trans fatty acids, mutated forms of fat that lower HDL and increase LDL (bad) cholesterol. Some of the worst offenders are french fries.
Have More Sex
You might think all that grunting and sweating would increase your risk of a stroke, but University of Bristol researchers say the opposite is actually true. Not only are men who have sex at least twice a week less likely to have a stroke than men who have sex less often, but all that steamy exercise may also help reduce their heart-disease risk by up to a third, compared with guys who aren’t getting any.
Take Monday Off
The reduction in stress from missing a few days of work shrinks heart-attack and stroke risk by nearly 30 percent, according to a new study conducted at the State University of New York.
Eat Oatmeal Cookies
In a University of Connecticut study, men with high cholesterol who ate oat-bran cookies daily for 8 weeks dropped their levels of LDL cholesterol by more than 20 percent.
By the age of 20, up to 65 percent of men have at least one misaligned wisdom tooth that will never come in properly. Leave the tooth alone and bacteria can collect around it in a pocket, increasing your risk of all kinds of infections, including periodontal disease—which has been linked to heart disease.
Toss Your Salad with Olive Oil
Men whose diets include as much as 60ml f olive oil a day have an 82 percent lower risk of having a fatal first heart attack than men who consume little or none. Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats—known to hinder the oxidation of LDL cholesterol into its artery-clogging form.
Get Your BP Under 120/80
If your blood pressure is high (more than 140/90), knocking 20 points off the top number (systolic BP, the pressure when your heart is contracting) and 10 points off the bottom number (diastolic BP, the pressure when your heart is between beats) can cut your risk of dying of heart disease in half.
Feast on Potassium
Slice a banana on your cereal, then bake a sweet potato or cook up some spinach for dinner. All are loaded with potassium. Studies show that not getting your daily 3,500 milligrams of potassium can set you up for high blood pressure. Other good sources of potassium include raisins, tomatoes, and papayas.
Have a Fibre Appetizer
Take a fibre supplement—Metamucil, for instance—15 minutes before each meal. It’ll help slow the digestion of highly processed starches and sweets. Diets high in foods that quickly raise your blood sugar may increase heart-disease risk.
Trim Your BMI
Even if you work out and are reasonably fit, researchers at Boston University found that having a body-mass index over 25 can increase your risk of heart disease by as much as 26 percent.
Pick French Wine Over German
According to research in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, French red wine has up to four times more artery-protecting enzymes than German reds.
Know What’s in Your Arteries
Results of a highly sensitive C-reactive protein blood test, together with your cholesterol numbers, can help give doctors a more accurate picture of your heart-disease risk. And an apo B measurement may be a more reliable indicator of heart disease than LDL cholesterol, according to a recent review of studies comparing the two.
Move to the Sticks
Or sleep with earplugs. German researchers found that people who endured night-time sound levels that averaged higher than 55 decibels—about the volume of a washing machine or a coffee percolator—were twice as likely to be treated for high blood pressure as those who slept with sound levels under 50 decibels.
Yale researchers found that men with insulin resistance—a risk factor for diabetes and heart disease—who exercised on a stairclimber for 45 minutes 4 days a week improved their sensitivity to insulin by 43 percent in 6 weeks.
Have a Mac(intosh) Attack
Men who frequently eat apples have a 20 percent lower risk of developing heart disease than men who eat apples less often.
The American Heart Association recommends eating fish at least twice a week. If that’s not on your meal plan, try a fish-oil supplement instead. Besides lowering blood pressure and clearing plaque from the arteries, 1 to 2 grams of fish oil a day improves blood flow and helps maintain a regular heartbeat. Three months’ supply of Coromega—think melted Creamsicle—costs about $30 at iherb.com.
Harvard researchers found that men who perceived themselves to be working out vigorously were 28 percent less likely to develop heart disease than guys who felt they were slacking. An intense run should be at 75 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. (Calculate your MHR by subtracting your age from 220.)
Switch Your Spread
Buy trans fat-free margarine, such as Smart Balance Buttery Spread. Researchers in Norway found that, compared with butter, no-trans margarine lowered LDL cholesterol by 11 percent.
Slice Your Risk
Sure, whole-wheat bread contains cholesterol-lowering fibre, but it’s also packed with nutrients that will help keep your blood free of other deadly debris.
Take the Concord
University of California researchers found that compounds in Concord grapes help slow the formation of artery-clogging LDL cholesterol. The grapes also lower blood pressure by an average of 6 points if you drink just 350ml of their juice a day.
Close the Car Windows
Harvard researchers monitored the strength of 40 middle-aged men’s hearts and then tracked the men’s exposure to airborne pollution. “The more particles the men inhaled, the harder it was for their hearts to adjust to different types of activity,” says David C. Christiani, M.D., the study author.
Add E to Aspirin
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that a combination of the antioxidant (shoot for 800 international units) and blood-thinner helped reduce levels of plaque in clogged arteries by more than 80 percent.
Beat the Heat with a Handful of Grapes
University of Connecticut researchers recently discovered that fresh grapes provide cholesterol-lowering, artery-clearing protection similar to that you get from drinking concentrated grape juice or wine.
Ditch the Fad Diet
University of Michigan researchers found that people whose weight fluctuated wildly—as it tends to do when you adopt the whack-job-diet-of-the-month—had weaker hearts and worse bloodflow than people who lost weight more slowly but kept it off for good.
Make Friends at Work
Researchers at St. Johns University studied 70 New York City traffic cops and found that men with the most work friends also had the lowest heart rates and healthiest blood-pressure levels, even during times of stress.
Cheaters Never Prosper
Casual extramarital sex increases your risk of a fatal heart attack. Doctors at London’s St. Thomas’s Hospital found that 75 percent of cases of sudden death during sex involved a two-timing spouse—and the death risk was greatest in men who took up with much younger women. The docs found hardly any risk of heart attack in long-term relationships.
Use the Free Blood-Pressure Test (Wisely)
Most of the free blood-pressure-monitoring machines found in pharmacies aren’t 100 percent accurate. According to a Canadian study, the machines can be off by an average of 8 points systolic and 4 points diastolic per reading. Check your BP three times, then average the readings.
Eat Fresh Berries
Strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries are all loaded with salicylic acid—the same heart-disease fighter found in aspirin.
Tune Out Stress
Blood pressure surges in the morning. But listening to music instead of Howard Stern can help control it, reducing your chances of a morning coronary.
Root for the Springboks/Bafana Bafana/ The Proteas
A study on World Cup Soccer found heart-attack rates fell among locals when the home team won. Experts believe that the euphoria of a win, plus stress reduction from leisure pursuits, may help keep heart problems at bay.
Half of all people with sleep apnoea—a condition that occurs when people quit breathing for up to a minute at a time while sleeping—also have high blood pressure, caused by unusually high levels of the hormone aldosterone. Beat the apnea and the BP drops, too. Your doctor can prescribe a SleepStrip, an at-home sleep-apnoea test.
Swallow Phytosterols or Phytostanols
Both substances—derived from pine trees and soy—lower bad cholesterol levels by an average of 10 to 15 percent. Besides being available in supplements, the compounds are in cholesterol-lowering spreads.
Buy Calcium-Fortified OJ
Increasing the calcium in your diet can lower your blood pressure. You’ll derive a benefit from the vitamin C as well. According to research from England, people with the most vitamin C in their bloodstreams are 40 percent less likely to die of heart disease.
Snack on Pumpkin Seeds
30g of seeds contains more than a third of your recommended intake of magnesium. According to Mildred Seeling, M.D., author of The Magnesium Factor, magnesium deficiencies have been linked to most risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, and the increased build-up of plaque in the arteries.
Acupuncture appears to trigger the endorphins that help the heart relax and fight off stress, researchers say.
Change Your Oil
Researchers in India found that men who replaced the corn and vegetable oils in their kitchens with sesame-seed oil lowered their blood pressure by more than 30 points in just 60 days, without making any other changes in their diets.
Massage helps relieve stress and reduce levels of inflammation-triggering chemicals in the skin, says Maria Hernandez-Reif, Ph.D., of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami.
Pick the Can
The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that many canned vegetables contain up to 40 percent higher levels of heart-disease-fighting antioxidants than fresh vegetables do.
Have the Red Licorice
A compound in liquorice root has been shown to spike blood pressure—especially in men who eat a lot of black liquorice. Fruit-flavoured liquorice, however, doesn’t contain the compound.
Be a Part-Time Vegetarian
Researchers in Toronto found that men who added a couple of servings of vegetarian fare such as whole grains, nuts, beans, and tofu to their diets each day for a month lowered their LDL cholesterol by nearly 30 percent.
Put These Tips to Use
Remember: Your heart will benefit more from a few long-term health improvements than from a flurry of activity followed by a return to the dangerous norm. We’ve given you the tools to protect yourself. Work 10 tips into your lineup over the next month. When they become second nature, adopt 10 more. By year’s end, the percentages should swing around in your favour. You can do this. It’s the only way to give your heart a beating chance.