9 Things You Can Do to Keep Your Heart Healthy

Simple ways to protect yourself from public health enemy No. 1: heart disease

Photo: Adult cooking

Keep your mind busy
Stress can have a way of making us forget to do things that are good for the heart, like eating well, exercising and getting enough rest. “Don’t stress” is great advice, but it’s often easier said than done, right?

Accept stress, then cancel its effects by taking your mind elsewhere. An activity like knitting, woodworking, playing chess or doing crossword puzzles focuses thoughts on a task rather than on a worry. Try spending 15 minutes each day involved in a hobby or a project that you really enjoy.

Get it pumping
The heart is a muscle, and working out makes it stronger. “Do something that gets your heart rate up for at least 20 minutes at a time,” says Stephanie Coulter, M.D., a cardiologist at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston. That means aerobic activities like running, spinning and sports.

“It’s really hard for everyone, especially mothers, to fit this into the day. One way is to exercise with your children,” Dr. Coulter says. “Go bike riding or swimming. Play basketball. I see mothers out jogging with their kids. It teaches children that exercise is part of a good life.”

Check your cholesterol
Few of us know our cholesterol numbers. That’s okay. Take it as a reminder to discuss cholesterol at your next doctor visit. Most adults should have their cholesterol checked every 5 years, or more often depending on risk factors.

What’s most important to know is that healthy cholesterol levels help prevent heart attack and stroke. We can all improve ours by eating well.

Pace for calories
It’s easy to eat more than our bodies need. “Be aware of what you eat and drink, but portion out your calories so you feel good,” Dr. Coulter says.

“Every once in a while the pecan pie for 500 calories is worth it," she says. "But you have to do something to balance it and avoid gaining weight. Don’t have an appetizer, have less of the main course, or drink water instead of soda or alcohol.”

Subtract sugar
We all know eating sugar can cause an increase in waist size. But sweeteners might also cause an increase in blood pressure.

Added sugars in many packaged foods may play a bigger role in high blood pressure than added salt, according to new research. If sugary sodas are your favorite, try swapping one for seltzer water with a bit of fruit juice.

Sleep, sleep, sleep
“Sleep is so important for heart health,” says JoAnne Foody, M.D., medical director of the Pollin Cardiovascular Wellness Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “People who get the right amount of sleep tend to have lower blood pressure, steadier heart rate and are a healthier weight. With less sleep, we tend to snack more and crave more carbs.” Plan for 7 to 8 hours each night.

Chow on fiber
Eating foods with fiber helps lower risk of heart disease. Foods high in fiber also tend to be more filling, so you eat less. This helps control weight gain. Fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains are the best sources of fiber. Women should eat 21 to 25 grams per day. Men, 30 to 38 grams.

Plan for life
If you’re younger than 30, adopt healthy habits now and you won’t have to worry much about heart disease when you’re older.

“Make exercise a part of your daily routine now when you probably have more time in your day,” Dr. Coulter says. “Get in the habit of eating five to seven servings of vegetables and fruit every day, and try to limit red meat to once a week.”

That’s good advice for people in their 40s or 50s too, she says, but remember that as we get older, we need fewer calories because our metabolism slows down and we tend to be less active.

Stop smoking
Cigarette users are twice as likely to have a heart attack. The good news is a smoker’s body starts repairing itself soon after the final puff. Drinking milk might help cut cravings. Smokers in one study said having a cigarette after a glass of milk tasted so bad they were less likely to light up.