When it comes to our health, the organ at the heart of everything is, well, the heart. But we often don’t even know when this very vital organ is suffering, because the symptoms can be so varied and subtle.
It makes sense when you think about it: Your heart is “crucial to your survival,” says Healthline, which notes that it pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood and beats approximately 115,000 times every day. With an organ so vital, problems are bound to manifest in myriad ways. For example, both malaise and heartburn can be warning signs of heart disease.
While knowing about the symptoms of an unhealthy heart is important, taking care of your heart is an even better idea. “A healthy heart needs a good diet, moderate daily exercise, and good control of risk factors,” says Kaustubh Dabhadkar, MD, a cardiologist based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Read on for more ways to boost your cardiac health.
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Don’t underestimate the power of a good LOL. “When you laugh, your heart rate increases, and you take many deep breaths,” says Henry Ford Health. “This means that more oxygenated blood is circulated through your body—improving your vascular function.”
The site also notes that in addition to decreasing your risk of heart disease, laughter can help boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure, and help you lose weight.
Journaling doesn’t just help you shake a bad mood. “Individuals who write for 15-20 minutes, three to five times a week, experienced fewer stress-related visits to the doctor, improved immune system functionality, a feeling of greater psychological well-being, and reduced blood pressure,” the Heart Foundation reports.
“A healthy diet and lifestyle are the keys to preventing and managing cardiovascular disease,” says the American Heart Association (AHA), which recommends a variety of fruits and vegetables, products made up mostly of whole grains, healthy sources of protein such as legumes and nuts, and foods prepared with little or no salt.
Junk food should be off the table, literally and figuratively. “Hamburgers, fries, sugary sodas, and other less healthy foods may cause inflammation, a key player in the formation of artery-clogging plaque,” cautions Harvard Health.
A good tip for avoiding these types of foods? Eat breakfast, says Dabhadkar. “This is the most important meal of the day and keeps me going,” he says. “I am more likely to eat junk food if I skip breakfast.”
If the word “exercise” brings to mind the daunting image of sweat-drenched towels at your local gym, you can rest easy: “Even 20 to 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day reduces the future risk of heart disease,” Dabhadkar says.
A study in The British Journal of Medicine reported that “study participants who performed muscle-strengthening exercises 30 to 60 minutes per week combined with any amount of aerobic activity saw their risk of dying from cancer drop by 28 percent, their risk of premature death from any cause drop by 40 percent, and their risk of heart disease reduced by 46 percent.”
Choosing to incorporate exercise into your morning routine can give your heart health an extra boost, according to a Nov. 2022 article published in The European Journal of Preventative Cardiology. Researchers found that people who exercised in the morning were 16 percent less likely to suffer from coronary artery disease (CAD); in addition, their risk of a first-time stroke decreased by 17 percent.
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It’s easier said than done, but managing stress levels can be beneficial to your heart and other aspects of your wellness. “Stress plays a vital role in lifestyle diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity,” advises Dabhadkar.
“A stressful situation sets off a chain of events,” AHA explains. “Your body releases adrenaline, a hormone that temporarily causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise.” When it’s a chronic condition (“stress is constant and your body is in high gear off and on for weeks at a time,” says the AHA), the consistently high blood pressure can increase your risk of a heart attack and stroke.
“Meditation helps with stress management,” Dabhadkar—and so do diet and exercise (see above!).
The single most preventable risk factor for heart disease is smoking, which includes secondhand smoke and vaping. Quitting the habit—or steering clear of it entirely—is a crucial component of keeping your heart healthy.
Although you may associate smoking primarily with lung disease, “Smoking harms nearly every organ in your body, including your heart,” warns the American Lung Association. “Smoking can cause blockages and narrowing in your arteries, which means less blood and oxygen flow to your heart.”