The Minutes

Fitness and wellness insights from experts to help you hit your Paceline Minutes

9 Heart Health Tips to Keep the Doctor Away

Considering your heart plays a significant role in keeping your whole body working properly—and that the one you have at 20 is the same one you’ll have at 70—making sure it’s in top shape is crucial, regardless of age. ICYMI: The heart is the primary organ of your circulatory system, pumping blood throughout your body and sending nutrients to other organs, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

“You wouldn’t buy a really nice car and beat it up for years and then decide to start taking care of it, and you may not be able to reverse the damage done. Same with your heart: The goal is to reduce your risk of developing high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure by starting healthy habits young,” says Amy Goodson, RD, CSSD, LD, a dietitian based in Dallas Fort Worth, Texas.

Here’s the thing: Both high cholesterol and high blood pressure—along with diabetes, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, and genetics—can contribute to heart disease, according to Veronica Rouse, RD, CDE, who’s based in Ontario, Canada. BTW, heart disease is an umbrella term for a range of disorders that affect the heart, such as blood vessel disease and irregular heartbeats, and includes conditions you’re born with, per the Mayo Clinic. And per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it’s the number one cause of early death in the U.S. for both men and women.

The good news? Practicing heart-healthy habits can lower your chances of developing heart disease, such as coronary artery disease. That also applies if heart disease runs in your family, Rouse says. Here, heart health experts share their top tips for keeping tabs on your ticker’s health and ways to bolster it into your golden years.

How to Monitor Your Heart Health

You can gauge your heart health by keeping track of your cholesterol and blood pressure levels. 

Your total cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein: the bad kind of cholesterol), and HDL (high-density lipoprotein: the good kind of cholesterol) are factors your doctor can use to predict your risk for a heart attack, per the American Heart Association (AHA). 

When your body has too much LDL cholesterol, it can build up on the walls of blood vessels, Rouse says. This buildup is called plaque, and it can cause health problems such as not getting enough blood to the heart or brain, which can cause a heart attack or stroke, Rouse adds. Having healthy amounts of HDL cholesterol may protect against heart attack and stroke because HDL helps remove LDL from your body, according to the AHA.

Here’s a general breakdown of cholesterol levels for adults, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine:

  • Total cholesterol: Under 200 mg/dL is considered normal
  • HDL: 60 mg/dL and higher is considered protective against heart disease
  • LDL: Under 100 mg/dL is considered optimal

As for how often to keep tabs on these metrics, the AHA recommends adults ages 20 or older should have their cholesterol checked every four to six years, though it’s also noted that some people (like those who already have heart disease) may need to get it checked more often. 

Next up: blood pressure. Blood pressure is the measure of pressure or force of your blood against your artery walls, Rouse says. Less than 120/80 mm Hg is considered normal, according to the AHA. The top number is the systolic reading, which measures the force of your blood when your heart is contracting, and this number is usually the higher of the two (around 120 mm Hg). The bottom number is the diastolic reading, which measures the force when your heart is relaxing—for this reason, this number is usually the lower of the two (around 80 mm Hg).

“Having high blood pressure means that your heart has to work harder to push all your blood through your arteries and veins,” Rouse says. “Over time, this will damage and narrow your artery walls, making your arteries more vulnerable to plaque build-up.” That’s why high blood pressure is a risk factor for developing heart disease.

If your blood pressure is below 120/80 mm Hg, the AHA recommends getting it checked at least once every two years. If your blood pressure is higher, consider getting it checked more often. 

1. Prioritize a Good Night’s Sleep

Take note: Getting healthy sleep is one of the AHA’s Life’s Essential 8, key factors for bettering and maintaining cardiovascular health. Poor sleep can result in increased stress hormones (such as cortisol and adrenaline), which (over time) may have many detrimental cardiovascular effects, including high blood pressure, arrhythmias, and heart failure, says Christopher Davis, MD, FACC, a board-certified cardiologist based in Sarasota, Florida. 

The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. “The most important factor is the amount of deep and REM sleep as this is when the body regenerates,” Davis notes. You’ll want to avoid electronics two to three hours prior to bedtime and make sure to keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet, he adds. Exercising daily will also help, but try to fit your workouts in the morning or afternoon. Exercising (and consuming caffeine) too close to bedtime may result in insomnia, he says. 

2. Get Your Cardio

It’s important to do regular physical activity while you’re still young to help mitigate the effects of aging on your heart, says Jim White, CPT, RD, ACSM Health Fitness Specialist based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. 

“At a certain point in life, your heart’s functioning ability is going to peak and from there begin to decline. Exercise is one way to not only improve cardiac efficiency but also will slow down this decline in cardiovascular function,” White says.

In particular, aerobic exercise improves circulation, which helps lower your blood pressure and heart rate, per Johns Hopkins Medicine. The AHA recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (cardio) per week.

To help beat cardio boredom, Max Frankel, a certified trainer based in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, recommends cross-training, or using multiple modes of training in one or more sessions. “Personally, when I do cardio at the gym, I try to do 20 to 25 minutes on multiple machines such as Stairmaster, treadmill and elliptical to avoid plateau and boredom,” he says. Need inspiration? Check out some of the best cardio exercises to try at home

Walking can be enough to keep your heart healthy and reap the benefits of cardio exercise, too. “Walking still raises the heart above resting level and trains the heart to work more efficiently,” White says. 

Another perk of working out: When you hit 150 minutes of elevated heart rate activity each week, you’ll unlock rewards in the Paceline app.

3. Hit the Weights

Cardio is just one part of the equation: “Exercise should take a ‘balanced’ approach, overall. Just as recommendations for balanced nutrition require different food groups, exercise requires different modes for true balanced fitness,” Frankel says. And the results of a study published in 2019 suggested that doing both aerobic and resistance training may be better for reducing cardiovascular disease risk than either one alone. The AHA recommends strength training at least twice a week. Just remember to consult your doc before starting a new exercise program. 

4. Eat More Fiber

Fiber isn’t just good for your gut health—it also works magic on your heart. “The goal is to consume 25 to 38 total grams of fiber per day (soluble and insoluble) with at least five to 10 grams coming from soluble fiber,” Goodson says. “Soluble fiber, found in oats, fruits where you can eat the skins (apples, peaches, prunes, berries), nuts, seeds, beans, and some vegetables are essential for a healthy heart.” Goodson adds that cholesterol can bind to soluble fiber and then be excreted out of the body with it.

To help you get more fiber during your day, aim to incorporate the nutrient into every meal. Try oatmeal with berries and nuts in the morning, an apple and almonds at snack time, and add beans to a salad at dinner, Goodson recommends.

5. Eat More Plant Protein and Less Saturated Fat

Plant-based proteins are a key component of the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), an eating plan that can help reduce blood pressure, Rouse says. Plus, plant proteins—such as beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds—tend to be naturally low in saturated fat.  

“Saturated fat [is found] in fried foods, pastries and baked goods, visible fat on meat, skin on chicken, foods made with lots of butter and cream, as well as white, creamy sauces (like salad dressings, gravies, and alfredo sauce),” Goodson says.

“When eaten regularly, saturated fat can contribute to an increase in overall and total cholesterol,” she adds. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommend getting no more than 10% of your total calories from saturated fat. So if you eat 2,000 calories a day, that means you should aim to eat less than 22 grams of saturated fat daily. For those looking to lower their cholesterol, the AHA recommends keeping saturated fat to less than 6% of daily calories. 

“Instead, fill up on heart-healthy, unsaturated fats like nuts, nut butters, seeds, avocado, fatty fish, and liquid cooking oils like olive, grapeseed, avocado, and canola oils,” Goodson says.

6. Do Your Best to Manage Stress

Stress can harm your heart in more ways than one. Evidence suggests chronic stress is linked with increased inflammation in the body, which is associated with high blood pressure and lower HDL cholesterol (the good kind)—two heart disease risk factors, per Johns Hopkins Medicine. Stress can also cause you to sleep poorly, eat a less nutritious diet, and skip exercising, which are all bad habits for your heart, according to the same source.

“One of the best techniques to mitigate the negative effects of stress is to employ breathwork techniques that help balance the autonomic nervous system,” says Davis. “Increased stress often results in an imbalance in our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which make up the autonomic nervous system. Breathwork helps to balance these two systems.” Davis recommends downloading a breathwork app to guide you through breathing exercises as well as trying other stress-relieving techniques, such as yoga, tai chi, and chi gong.

7. Limit Added Sugars 

“Over time, high blood sugar can damage blood vessels that control the heart, so keeping blood sugar within normal limits can help reduce damage to the heart,” Rouse says. What’s more, a diet high in added sugars can contribute to an increase in triglycerides and body weight, two risk factors for heart disease, says Goodson. 

“Look for foods lower in added sugars and limit your intake of sugary snacks like candy, baked goods, sugary cereals and breakfast foods, as well as sugar-sweetened beverages,” Goodson says. If you’re craving something sweet, go for fruit, which contains fiber, another heart-healthy nutrient. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, starting at age 2, people should get less than 10% of their daily calories from added sugars.

8. Maintain a Healthy Weight

Focusing on eating specific nutrients for heart health is vital, but so is watching your overall calorie intake. “Typically, when people gain weight, they see an increase in total and bad [LDL] cholesterol as well as blood pressure,” Goodson says. Being “overweight” can also increase your risk for atrial fibrillation, or AFib (irregular heartbeat), which can lead to stroke and heart failure, according to Northwestern Medicine. Obesity can also contribute to prediabetes or diabetes, a risk factor for heart disease, per the same source.

“Maintaining a healthy weight, which includes eating a balance of all food groups, is important to help keep your heart healthy and at a lower risk for heart disease as well as other diseases,” Goodson says.

9. Quit Tobacco 

If you smoke cigarettes or chew tobacco, quitting should be on top of your to-do list. “The chemicals in tobacco damage the lining of the blood vessels (endothelium), making them more prone to narrowing and blockage,” Davis says. “This increases the risk of clots forming, which can lead to heart attack and stroke.” 

Plus, smoking raises your heart rate and blood pressure, which puts extra stress on the heart and blood vessels. And there’s more: Smoking causes the blood to become thicker and blood cells to become more “sticky,” increasing the risk of clotting, Davis warns.Opting for smokeless tobacco instead of cigarettes doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Chewing tobacco on the reg also increases your risk of dying of heart disease and stroke, per the Mayo Clinic.