It’s no surprise that heart health is important. After all, this single organ is responsible for pumping oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout your entire body to keep you alive and ensure that everything else is able to work properly. Despite its sheer importance, an estimated 16.3 million Americans (7 percent) suffer from heart disease, according to the Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on a National Surveillance System for Cardiovascular and Select Chronic Diseases—and it accounts for 1 in 5 of all U.S. deaths, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Taking Heart Health Seriously
Needless to say, we have to take heart health more seriously as a nation, and that starts with each of us as individuals. Although there is a genetic component to heart disease, it’s mostly caused by lifestyle, according to John Whyte, M.D., Chief Medical Officer for WebMD and author of Take Control of Your Heart Disease Risk. “The health of your heart is critical for your overall health, as it’s a vital organ that’s responsible for pumping oxygen-rich blood to all parts of the body,” he says. “When the heart is in good condition, it can perform this crucial function efficiently, ensuring that all organs and tissues receive the oxygen and nutrients they need to function properly; but, if the heart doesn’t function well, it’s going to decrease the quality and perhaps the length of your life.”
Unfortunately, many people are not doing enough to maintain optimal heart health. In fact, only 1 in 5 Americans has what’s considered as “optimal heart health,” according to research by the American Heart Association (AHA). “This low number can be attributed to various factors, including sedentary lifestyles, poor dietary choices, and a lack of awareness about the importance of heart health,” says Dr. Whyte. “It’s essential for individuals to proactively manage their heart health by adopting healthier lifestyles, regular check-ups, learning their risk factors and trying to modify them.”
If you’re hoping to improve your heart health, start with these 8 expert-backed habits you can start today.
1. Consume a nutrient-rich diet
One way to significantly reduce your risk of heart disease is to consume a diet that’s loaded with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. Limit saturated and trans fats, sodium, and added sugars. Incorporate more heart-healthy foods like fish (rich in omega-3 fatty acids), nuts, and legumes.
It’s important to look at food labels and make informed choices when grocery shopping. I like to compare food items – so if one yogurt has 15 g of sugar, and another has 5 g, you know the choice to make. Dr. Emma Laing, R.D.N., Ph.D., serves as the director of dietetics at the University of Georgia and is a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She advises including 1 ½ to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables daily, while also striving to consume more unsaturated fats.
“Using plant oils that are liquid at room temperature when cooking can help reduce the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) “bad” cholesterol that circulates in your blood and reduce your risk of developing heart disease,” she says. “Olive oil, canola oil, and avocado oil are some examples, and nuts and seeds (like peanuts, most tree nuts, and flax seeds) and fatty fish (like salmon, mackerel, and tuna) provide omega-3 fatty acids, which have also been shown to benefit heart health.”
2. Exercise regularly
The second-most important thing you can do for heart health is to move more. Whether that’s intentional exercise or trying to walk more often in your daily routine. “Cardiovascular exercise is vital to strengthening your heart; work your way up to at least 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise weekly,” says Routhenstein. “Add in 60 minutes of resistance exercise per week for cardiometabolic health and prevention of muscle atrophy—and don’t forget to incorporate 5-15 minutes of daily stretching or mobility training for optimal blood vessel health and fall prevention.”
3. Get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night
There’s a reason that organizations such as the National Institute of Health recommends a minimum of 7-9 hours of sleep each night—it’s imperative for your overall health, including the health of your heart. In addition to aiming to get enough sleep, make sure your sleep hygiene is up to par. “If you snore, it is important to get screened for sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder that can increase oxidative stress and blood pressure which increase risk of heart disease,” says Michelle Routhenstein, R.D.N., Cardiology Dietitian, Preventative Cardiology Nutritionist and Owner of Entirely Nourished, LLC.
4. Stay well hydrated
Did you know that when you’re thirsty your body is already in a state of dehydration? That’s why it’s so important to stay on top of your water intake and not let yourself get to the point where you’re craving H2O, notes Routhenstein.“Our body is terrible at telling us we are thirsty and this mechanism gets worse as we age,” she says. “When you are dehydrated, your blood is thicker and stickier which makes your heart have to overwork to pump blood efficiently throughout the body.”
5. Keep your stress levels at bay
There’s no denying that we’re living in stressful times. However, being in a chronic state of stress can take a serious toll on your heart. Dr. Whyte recommends practicing stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, or mindfulness to help lower stress levels. “Reducing stress can help lower blood pressure and improve overall heart health,” he says. “It also reduces chronic inflammation, which we know damages blood vessels.”
6. Quit smoking
If you’re a smoker, quitting is one of the best things you can do for your heart, according to Dr. Whyte. “Smoking damages blood vessels, increases blood pressure, and raises the risk of heart disease significantly,” he says. “Seek support from healthcare professionals or smoking cessation programs to help you quit—it’s never too late and your heart will benefit from it immediately.”
7. Limit or avoid alcohol
Alcohol consumption, too, can negatively affect several organs in your body, including your heart. “Consuming high doses of alcohol, even in one sitting, has been shown to increase the top number in a blood pressure reading (systolic pressure) by about 3-5 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and the bottom number (diastolic pressure) by about 2-3 mmHg,” warns Routhenstein. “The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans do not encourage alcohol consumption but guidance is provided on what constitutes moderate amounts, i.e., up to one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men.”
8. Don’t skip out on your checkups
Be sure to see your primary care provider and registered dietitian regularly. They can monitor any changes in your heart health and provide resources to help you with your specific nutrition and health goals, suggests Routhenstein. These visits play a crucial role in identifying and addressing potential risk factors that may contribute to heart-related complications. Factors such as genetics, family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes can all be effectively managed through these visits. Dr. Whyte recommends getting lab tests, and maybe even a calcium score. “Ask your doctor to calculate your risk, using calculators like the AHA/ACC ASCVD Risk Calculator,” he says. “Follow your doctor’s recommendations for screenings and medication as needed.”