If you’re familiar with the adage “genetics loads the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger,” then you probably already know that your daily habits are some of the strongest predictors of overall health and quality of life—and when it comes to your heart, this is especially true. That’s not surprising, considering cardiac disease is the number one killer in the US and accounts for one in every five deaths. Fortunately, avoiding certain behaviors that put your heart at risk can set the stage for a long and vibrant life. Read on to discover which lifestyle habits are the worst for your heart, and what you can do instead.
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Smoking is the single most preventable cause of cardiovascular diseases (CVDs). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), tobacco use is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for over 6 million deaths per year. But even if you’re a longtime user, kicking the habit can improve your heart health. Several studies have shown that your risk of heart attacks or death from heart disease gets cut in half once you quit smoking. Also, your chance of atherosclerosis (arterial plaque build-up) and blood clots plummets soon after quitting.
As soon as two to three weeks after giving up tobacco, your blood flow will improve and your cardiovascular system will begin healing. However, it can take five to 10 years for your heart to recover fully — all the more reason to quit now and start your journey to better health.
Suzanne SteinbaumDO, cardiologist and volunteer medical expert for American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement, tells best life“If you don’t smoke, vape, or use tobacco products, don’t ever start. There’s no such thing as a safe tobacco product. If quitting smoking or tobacco is a challenge for you, ask your healthcare team for help to kick the habit using proven methods.”
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A good night’s rest isn’t just crucial for alertness, mental clarity, and energy—it’s also essential for your heart. Unfortunately, one in three US adults don’t regularly get the recommended minimum seven hours of sleep per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Research shows that lack of sleep increases risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, and obesity. This is because your heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure rise and fall during sleep. This process, called your circadian rhythm, is critical for heart health. When you don’t get enough shuteye, your body’s circadian rhythm is thrown off, which can lead to heart problems in the long term.
“The amount and quality of sleep you get can impact your eating habits, mood, memory, internal organs, and more,” says Steinbaum. “Adults should aim for an average of seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Poor sleep may also put you at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline and dementia, depression, high blood pressure, blood sugar problems, and obesity,” she adds.
Do your heart a favor and eliminate ultra-processed foods from your diet. These are high in added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats. There’s a veritable laundry list of unhealthy foods to avoid, with some of the worst culprits being sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts, pastries, cookies, ice cream, processed meats, frozen dinners, canned entrées (we’re looking at you, Chef Boyardee ), red meat, butter, and cheese. Instead, add more whole plant foods to your plate. According to multiple studies—like this one from 2018, published in Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine—plant-based diets with little to no animal consumption are associated with a reduced CVD risk, as well as an improved cardiovascular risk profile.
“Use the nutrition facts label on packaged foods to reduce sodium, added sugars, and saturated fats,” recommends Steinbaum. “The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day and moving toward an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults. The AHA also recommends limiting added sugars to no more than six percent of calories each day.”
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It sounds simple, but one of the best things you can do for your heart is to move more. A mountain of research shows that regular exercise has several benefits for heart health, such as lower blood pressure, reduced plaque buildup in your arteries, decreased resting heart rate, and even a stronger heart, which can improve blood flow, according to a 2019 study published in Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine.
For optimal heart health, the CDC recommends you get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, plus two days of strength training. “Move more—it’s one of the best ways to stay healthy, prevent disease, and protect your heart,” advises Steinbaum. “You can increase your intensity for even more benefits if you’re already active. If you’re not active now, get started by simply sitting less and moving more.”