As you go about your day, you probably don’t think much about the organ that makes it all possible: your heart. It pumps for you all day long, and it’s your hardest working muscle.
You can help keep it going for years to come with these six must-do steps. “It’s some of the best medicine,” says Atlanta cardiologist David E. Montgomery, MD.
Does this mean we all have to start training for the Ironman? No. You can do anything physical that keeps your heart rate up for 30 minutes -- or 20 minutes if it’s high intensity -- 5 days a week.
Want ideas? Running. Biking. Rowing. In other words, “most things that end with –ing and that you can keep up for a few minutes,” Montgomery says.
If you’re not active now, check in with your doctor first to see if there are any limits on what you can do.
2. Stay active throughout the day.
A workout at the gym is a good start. But what’s going on for the rest of your day?
“If you’re sitting at a desk all day -- even if you hit the elliptical [cardio machine] that morning -- you’re still at risk for heart disease,” Montgomery says.
When you’re at work, build in breaks from being still. Get up and get your limbs moving and your blood pumping.
Montgomery suggests you take a conference call and answer emails while standing at your desk. You can also swap your regular chair with a balance ball, which keeps your core muscles engaged as you work.
If you check social media on your phone when you’re on a break, get up and pace around the room at the same time. You get the idea: Keep moving.
3. Go old-school with food.
“The way to eat optimally for your heart hasn’t changed in hundreds of years,” Montgomery says. The tried-and-true classics are still your best choices:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains, like brown rice and other unrefined carbs
- Nuts, seeds, and legumes, such as chickpeas and lima beans
Don’t offset the benefits of these foods by frying them or smothering them in butter or cheese. That will raise your “bad” (LDL) cholesterol that clogs your arteries.
What about meat? You can still have some, but limit how much and avoid fatty cuts.
“We don’t have solid evidence that vegans live longer than vegetarians, or that vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters,” Montgomery says. “But we do know that eating low levels of red meat and high levels of lean meats and fish is a way to optimize your heart health.”
4. Stop smoking… everything.
You probably know that smoking tobacco makes you more likely to get heart disease. What may surprise you is that smoking marijuana is also bad for your heart.
“We can’t say that it’s equally bad,” Montgomery says. “But it’s worse than people probably realize.”
5. Learn the fine art of chilling out.
Stress happens! As Montgomery points out, the problem is not the circumstances that cause stress as much as how we respond.
When we’re under pressure, our body ramps up adrenaline, which can overwork our hearts. One way to help is to hop on the treadmill or roll out your yoga mat. Exercise trains your body how to handle stress, Montgomery says.
If stress gets to be too much, talk to someone, whether it’s a trusted friend or a professional counselor.
6. Shut down.
Sleep is when our body reboots and recovers. That’s important for all aspects of our health, not just the heart. “You can’t feel good if you’re not restoring yourself,” Montgomery says.
When you’re asleep, your heart rate and blood pressure go down. That gives your heart a much-need break. Without it, you’re stressed and you’ll crave fuel from high-calorie foods -- which, let’s face it, are not heart-healthy.
So make it a priority to be well-rested. You’ll be ready to face whatever the day may bring.