Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the US and worldwide according to the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control. The old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” rings true. From 2016-2017, cardiovascular disease cost the US $216 billion in direct costs and $147.4 billion in lost productivity/mortality, according to the American Heart Association.
Heart disease is mostly preventable through changing your lifestyle and managing risk factors, such as lowering high blood pressure, high cholesterol and blood sugar.
You don’t need to make dramatic changes, small tweaks to your daily life can add up. Below are eight things you can do to improve your heart health quickly.
This sounds difficult. We all have busy lives. Kids, jobs, school, commutes, paying the bills, keeping our homes clean, and watching the daily news can all add up to a stressful life. Even vacation can be stressful. But reducing stress doesn’t necessarily mean limiting the things we need to do. Try a short mindfulness session while you’re waiting for the kids, or 4-7-8 breathing on your commute. A few minutes of either can lower your heart rate and decrease anxiety. Just make sure you don’t fall asleep at the wheel.
Sleep not only helps our brains function, it also helps heart health. Getting the right amount of sleep helps the body repair itself and allows us to function during our waking hours, the CDC says. Adults who get less than seven hours of sleep are more likely to have health issues that can increase the risk of heart disease, heart attacks and strokes.
When we sleep, our blood pressure decreases, but if we don’t get enough sleep, blood pressure remains higher for a longer period of time. Some studies show that getting enough sleep may help improve blood sugar control in people with Type 2 diabetes. Lack of sleep can also lead to weight gain, especially in children and teenagers. It also may affect the part of the brain that controls hunger.
Learn More: 28 Techniques to Fall Asleep Fast
The heart is a muscle and exercise will strengthen it. Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week. If you’re not used to exercise, do the simple things first, like going for a walk. A 30-minute walk at a brisk pace of about 100 steps per minute or 3-3.5 miles per hour can raise your heart rate into the aerobic zone and the length will help you burn fat and improve your aerobic fitness. Additional cardio, such as cycling, jogging or swimming also increases your heart’s fitness and helps you lose weight.
Resistance training is good for people carrying extra body fat, a risk factor for heart disease. A mix of aerobic exercise and resistance training may help raise HDL (good) cholesterol and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Doing at least two nonconsecutive days per week of strength training is a good place to start, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
Smoking tobacco has terrible effects on the heart. The chemicals in cigarettes can damage the heart and blood vessels leading to coronary heart disease, hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, aneurysms and more according to the FDA. Quitting is hard, but worth the effort. It will decrease your heart rate, lower carbon monoxide levels in your blood, and reduce your risk of strokes and heart disease.
Alcohol has several physiological effects on the heart. Some studies have shown an association between moderate drinking and a lower risk of dying from heart disease, but researchers at John Hopkins say it’s difficult to determine cause and effect in those studies. Moreover, excessive drinking can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, heart failure and cardiomyopathy. It also contributes to obesity and many other health problems.
Drinking alcohol causes your heart rate variability to drop (bad) and your resting heart rate to rise (also bad). Heart rate variability (HRV) and resting heart rate are two of the most useful metrics for quantifying your heart health and fitness on a daily basis.
Meal planning does not mean making drastic changes to your diet. It also doesn’t mean you have to watch your macros, although you can certainly begin to track macronutrients to help you learn what different foods contain.
Diet changes are hard to maintain. A better option is planning your meals for the week and making your shopping list based on healthy choices that you and your family enjoy. Limit red meat to one meal a week and increase the amount of fish or shellfish you eat. Scheduling a meatless day with a vegetable main dish can help you learn which vegetables you like and which you do not. Plan dinners and lunches around vegetables and foods rich in dietary fiber such as brown rice or quinoa, and breakfasts to include oatmeal with berries and scrambled egg breakfast burritos with avocado and tomato in a whole grain wrap.
Make a big batch of your family favorites for each meal and freeze them for those days when you’re running late or running ragged.
Plan your snacks too. Nut butters go great with raw veggies or sliced apples at school. Add a handful of unsalted mixed nuts and dried unsweetened fruit to your work lunch. A bowl of nuts in their shells provides the activity of cracking shells that can help slow or prevent mindless eating in front of the TV.
Processed food and restaurant meals generally have far more salt than the same meals you cook at home, and the portions you make are also generally much smaller. While sodium is a required nutrient for all animals, eating too much can increase blood pressure and contribute to heart disease. More than 70% of the sodium Americans consume comes from processed and restaurant foods. Even ditching the frozen prepackaged meals for frozen home-cooking can decrease your sodium levels.
If you still want a salty snack, check the nutrition labels on packaging and choose the option with less sodium.
Binge eating and overeating may often be a response to stress. Using food to deal with anxiety, sadness and boredom can become a disorder over time. Being cognizant about how much and what you’re eating will help you avoid overeating.
Instead of accidentally eating an entire family-sized bag of potato chips, choose the better option of whole grain crackers and baby carrots with a tablespoon of hummus.
Staying hydrated is also a good way to curb hunger. Sometimes those hunger pangs are your body telling you it’s thirsty.
These eight tips can help you lower bad cholesterol, increase HRV and decrease your resting heart rate, all of which will help improve your heart health. WHOOP monitors your HRV and resting heart rate on a daily basis, and you can follow your trends in the app. Additionally, WHOOP tracks the quality and duration of your sleep with a Sleep Coach feature that makes nightly recommendations for exactly how much sleep your body needs.
The WHOOP Journal also allows you to track various choices and behaviors each day, from things like dietary options to stress. It can then help you follow how various aspects of your lifestyle positively or negatively correlate with key heart health metrics.