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4 Habits for a Healthy Heart

The heart is the most vital organ in the body. When it stops, nothing else can function. Poor heart health can cause that to happen prematurely. These healthy habits can help you prevent it.

4 Habits for a Healthy Heart

"Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States." That’s a line you hear so much that it may have lost its impact. But you hear it a lot because it doesn’t change — it’s been that way for nearly a century.

Heart disease became the leading cause of death in Iowa in 1920 and has held the top spot every year since. It took another decade for it to become the biggest health threat in the U.S. as a whole. And another 33 years after that for the government to designate February as American Heart Month to help raise awareness.

Despite 98 years of research, medical advancement, awareness and education, heart disease remains the biggest health problem for all Americans. And if modern medicine hasn’t solved it, what can you do about it?

The answers are pretty simple. Actually following them is harder than it looks.

1. Eat a heart-healthy diet, not just heart-healthy foods.

What you put into your body affects your overall health — heart health included. Obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes are all risk factors for heart disease. And poor eating habits play a role in all of them.

You might hear that berries, fish and the latest food fad are good for your heart. It might even be true. But a single food can only do so much, even if it’s a "superfood." Your diet is a combination of everything you put into your body. So every single thing you eat should stick to these heart-healthy diet recommendations to help prevent heart disease:

  • Low in trans and saturated fat
  • Low in sugar
  • Low in sodium

The best foods that fit these recommendations are fruits and vegetables. A heart-healthy diet emphasizes plants. Most of the superfoods you see are probably plant-based. Make half of your meals fruits and veggies and limit your salts, fats and sugar in other areas to keep your heart in tip-top shape.

2. Get your heart pumping through exercise and an active lifestyle.

Adults need 150 minutes of physical activity each week. Minimum. Physical activity is a proven way to reduce your risk of heart disease and many other conditions.

That’s because your heart is a muscle. Exercise helps to strengthen it just as it would any other muscle in your body. A strong heart pumps more blood more efficiently throughout your body, especially through the surrounding arteries that clog up with fatty deposits leading to heart disease.

Exercising for a half hour five days a week is good for your heart. It just may not be good enough. The effects of a sedentary lifestyle can counteract all the good you’re doing by exercising. Too much sitting is linked to an increased risk of heart disease. So sit less often, find ways to work light exercise into your day and, overall, live a more active lifestyle.

3. Manage conditions that affect your heart health.

High blood pressure and high cholesterol are two of the top three risk factors for heart disease. High blood pressure stiffens your arteries. High cholesterol causes a build-up of fat content in your arteries. The longer you go without managing these conditions, the greater your risk of a heart attack.

You need to make the necessary lifestyle changes to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol under control — eating right, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting your alcohol use. Often, medical treatment for high cholesterol or high blood pressure is necessary. Yet many people do none of the above to control their conditions — or don’t even know they have them at all.

Obesity and diabetes are two other diseases that greatly affect your risk for heart disease. Extra weight puts extra stress on your heart. Preventing these helps stop high blood pressure and high cholesterol as well.

4. Don’t smoke.

Smoking isn’t just bad for your lungs; it’s bad for your heart, too. It’s the third main risk factor for developing heart disease. Smoking damages the lining of your arteries, increasing your risk of a heart attack.

It’s also a risk multiplier. If you have one of the other conditions (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or obesity) and smoke, your chances of heart disease are even higher.

Heart disease is an age-related issue. It didn’t top any “Leading Causes of Death” lists until 1920 partly because the average person never saw their 50th birthday back then. We’re lucky to live in a time that allows us to see our 70s, 80s, 90s and even 100s. If you make the lifestyle choices to protect your heart health, you may see the day, years from now, when heart disease is no longer number one.