October 2021



    Your heart works nonstop to keep your blood pumping, your organs fueled with oxygen, and your energy up.  To keep it strong and healthy, make these smart and simple decisions throughout your day.  The best news: It’s a lot easier than you think to help protect your ticker.

    Given that heart disease is the number-one cause of death of adults in the U.S., it’s surprising, even alarming, how little people know about it.  The condition kills more women each year than all cancers, including breast cancer, combined, a fact 68% of Americans don’t know.  We’re also fuzzy about preventing heart disease.  When should you start getting your cholesterol tested? (Age 20).  Popping an aspirin every day can help your heart.  (False).  By the way, we’re already much clearer about the dangers of heart disease for men.  We’re just not doing much about it for either gender.

    But there are things you can do to fend off heart disease that don’t involve a pill.  Most incidences of cardiovascular disease, which shows up as coronary artery disease (CAD, the most common form), a heart attack (MI) or heart failure, can be prevented by making healthy choices like eating better and exercising.  Other factors include managing weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, and this round-the-clock routine can show how easy it is to achieve these daily goals.

    Rise and Breathe.  It may sound redundant to close your eyes and meditate the minute you wake up, but the logic is twofold: For one, practices like meditation and mindfulness can help manage blood pressure, cholesterol and stress.  And two, you’re most likely to commit when you do it first thing in the morning.  Ten minutes is optimal but shorter sessions of even a couple of minutes can have a striking effect: meditating can improve heart rate variability (a sign of a healthy ticker).

    Break a Sweat.  Do something that gets you breathing harder and your blood pumping faster.  This is defined as moderate exercise, and the goal is to get about 150 minutes of it a week.  If you’re in a rush, don’t worry; you can do a half-hour now, or some 10-15 minutes bouts later in the day.  It can be getting on your elliptical, walking the dog, or climbing stairs in your house while doing chores.  Or try quick bursts of high intensity activity followed by short bursts of rest; this approach can help raise your metabolism, burn fat and build muscle in a fraction of the time (you’ve heard of HIIT training?).  At least twice per week, add strength or resistance training.  Using your own body weight by doing push-ups, squats, Pilates or yoga.

    Get Your Oats.  Rolled or steel-cut oats are truly the champions of breakfast.   The grain brims with soluble fiber, which helps subdue harmful LDL cholesterol and keep your arteries clear, and the steel-cut type has the lowest glycemic index so it’s best for your blood sugar.  If you don’t have time to stir over the stove, start the night before.  Combine a half-cup each of steel-cut oats and almond milk and a teaspoon of nut better in a jar; add ground chia seeds and chill in the fridge until morning.  When you’re ready to dig in, top the heated dish with berries and a few walnuts or almonds.

    Clean Your Teeth.  Brushing and flossing not only prevent cavities, they also clear away bad bacteria that can cause gum disease.  When you develop gum disease, you’re 2-3 times more likely to develop CAD.  Why? Gum disease appears to trigger an overproduction of infection-fighting white blood cells called neutrophils; while that’s at first beneficial, they go on to release inflammation-causing cytokines in the body that can irritate blood vessels and cause arterial plaque to form.  This process can set the stage for a heart attack.   Aim for brushing with a soft-bristle toothbrush for at least two minutes twice per day and floss at least daily, adding a water flosser for additional cleaning (water flossers do not replace actual flossing). 

    Refill your Coffee.  Data have very consistently shown that coffee can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease.   We have yet to determine why, but it’s thought that the potent antioxidants and caffeine play a role.   Be sure to have your caffeine early in the day and stop by 10 AM at the latest.  Skip the sweeteners and high-calorie flavored creamers.

    Break for Lunch.  Don’t wait until your stomach is growling.  Aim for a mid-morning snack of nuts and eat lunch at the same time every day.   These habits make it easier to maintain a healthy weight (and a healthy heart).   As for what you put on your plate, most experts agree that a Mediterranean-style diet is the clear winner for your cardiovascular system.  This means mostly whole grains, leafy greens and other vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes, cold-water fish, some poultry and dairy, and only occasional meat.   The meal should be a plate of vegetables with some chicken on the side rather than chicken as the main course. 

    Take a Lap.  We’ve all made some not-so-great impressions on our sofas and desk chairs this past year.  Sitting for long stints isn’t just bad for your waistline; it’s bad for your heart.   Luckily, it doesn’t take much to offset inertia.  A half-hour stroll can undo the negative effects of sitting for 8.5-10.5 hours.  What’s more, just 11 minutes has a measurable benefit, and can help you live longer.  We all have time for that.

    Snack Smart.  The cognitive nosedive you’re sensing is real.  So, give your tired eyes a break from the computer screen, and power up with healthy fats and protein.  Reset to a mix of 1 teaspoon natural nut butter in some plain whole milk Greek or Icelandic yogurt to make a pudding-like treat.  For a warm bite, top a Wasa multigrain cracker with marinara and a thin slice of mozzarella, and toast it.

    Eat Dinner.  See: lunch.  But aim for smaller portions.  Folks who take in most of their calories at breakfast and lunch have lower BMIs than those who eat the most at night.  The lower your BMI, the less likely you are to develop cardiovascular disease, particularly heart failure and coronary heart disease.

    Pick a Sitcom.  When you watch something funny, the lining of your blood vessels (endothelium) relaxes and expands, boosting healthy blood flow by 22 percent on average (about the same benefit as light exercise) and the effects last about an hour.    Scarier entertainment constricts those blood vessels, reducing blood flow by as much as 33%.  Now that’s scary!

    Hit the Sack.   A consistent bedtime is paramount to healthy sleep.  Turning in at erratic times is linked with a higher BMI and blood-sugar and blood-pressure levels, and increased rates of stroke.  If 11 is early for you, make sure to allow for 7-8 hours of sleep per night.  When it comes to helping prevent heart disease, or any disease, for that matter, that’s the sweet spot.

    Naomi Barr