7 Tips to Improve Heart Health (Whether You're 18 or 81)

Heart disease is the leading killer of both men and women in this country, and heart health has long been a major focus of the medical community. But these days, with nearly half of all American adults living with some form of cardiovascular disease, it is vital for all of us to understand what causes risks to heart health, how to minimize those risks and, once they've been diagnosed, how to manage chronic heart conditions day in and day out.

If you have read my bio on the Meet Dan page of my website, you know that medically, I shouldn’t even be here. If you haven’t please take 3 minutes to read it (after this post of course!) and be prepared for a crazy story and some photos that I hope will give you some inspiration - and motivation!

Heart issues can hit people of all ages. It almost killed me in my 30s. I have a friend dealing with the same issue in their 30s and another who is 28 and bedridden with an artificial left ventricle and wires coming out of their chest, connected to 2 batteries to keep him alive while waiting for a heart transplant. Heart disease doesn’t care how old or young you are, and even “fit” people can have heart issues and not even know it. I know from experience.

Here are seven heart-healthy habits we encourage you to incorporate into your own daily to-do's. A commitment to heart health may mean shifts large or small in daily life, but your heart – and your loved ones – will thank you.

Steps to improving your heart health:

  1. Get educated.

  2. Manage your diet.

  3. Get moving.

  4. Manage your stress.

  5. Cut back on drinking and smoking.

  6. Be mindful of your mind.

  7. Stay connected to care.

Step 1: Get Educated

The most powerful weapon against heart disease is knowledge. Take every opportunity to learn about your risk for high blood pressure or a heart attack. There are high-risk populations who will want to take extra precautions when it comes to being heart healthy. This includes African Americans and people with diabetes and other chronic illnesses such as arthritis, COPD, stress and heart disease. Men and women have different risks, with men being at a higher risk of heart attack and women, especially after menopause, having a number of cardiovascular vulnerabilities.

Step 2: Manage Your Diet

Watching what you eat – specifically, avoiding foods high in unhealthy fats, sugar and salt – can help prevent weight gain and keep cholesterol levels under control. Be sure to read food labels to check the amount of sodium in packaged foods (in fact, avoid packaged foods when you can). Keeping a food journal is a simple way to hold yourself accountable to your healthy eating goals. Personally, I use MyFitnessPal, a free app for both iOs and Android. Writing down the content on your food labels – such as salt or sugar content levels – or how many servings of fruits and vegetables you have each day will help you see, manage and plan your diet more effectively. The app I use allows you to just scan bar codes on food and has a massive database so accurate entry takes just a moment for an entire prepared meal.

Step 3: Get Moving!

Just 15 to 30 minutes of light physical activity three to five days a week can help reduce your risk for stroke and heart disease. Small steps can lead to big progress if you just add a little activity to your life: walk to the mailbox or the corner market every day; get off one stop early and walk a few extra blocks if you ride the bus or subway. If you can't get outdoors, even a stroll down the hallway at home can be of benefit. It's a start!

If you really want to be on top of things you should get a MINIMUM of 150 “intensity minutes” per week. This is light exercise like walking or things that don’t really get the heart rate up. If you do intense exercise that gets your heart rate over 70% of your max rate, those minutes count as double.

Step 4: Manage Your Stress

Yes, sometimes stress is unavoidable, but most of the time we can take a few minutes to separate from the typical tensions that we all face in a busy day. This is especially important when recovering from any heart-related health issue. To help reduce your risk for hypertension, give yourself regular 10-minute de-stressing breaks to listen to music, visit with a friend, meditate, practice gentle yoga or take care of a pet. A lot of fitness watches now-a-days can measure stress. If you see a setting that measures HRV that’s it! It measures irregularities in your heart beat which is usually the result of stress. The lower the number, the better.

Step 5: Quit (or at least cut back on) Smoking and Drinking

Smoking raises blood pressure and can cause strokes – so do everything you can to try to cut back or, better yet, stop smoking, including enrolling in a smoking cessation program. Limiting your alcohol consumption is also important, as alcohol can adversely affect some heart medications and heavy use increases stroke risk. Each person is different, but moderation is crucial.

Step 6: Be Mindful of the Mind

Patients with heart disease and stroke survivors are at high risk for experiencing depression. Adapting to a new lifestyle and impaired mobility, speech or cognitive function can present significant challenges. Frustration and depression are especially common in the winter months. Talk with your health care provider about the signs and symptoms of depression as well as online or community resources that may be available easily accessible for you.

On a personal note, this is my first winter “healed” from my ordeal and I notice days where I’m just tired for no reason and a lack of desire to do things. My solution: Pick myself up and do a workout. This kills two birds with one stone - gets me the intensity minutes for tip 3, and releases endorphins that improve my mood. It takes a small amount of willpower to just start the workout, but I feel brand new once I’m done and ready to tackle the day.

Step 7: Stay Connected to Care

It's especially important for those at high risk for hypertension to stay in communication with their physicians and to be mindful of their blood pressure and related health risks. As always, it's important to consult your health provider before making significant changes in your diet or fitness routine. I get a simple blood lab done twice a year just to watch for any changes and be proactive now. Also, headaches, dizziness and other common symptoms can be blood pressure related and are a good idea to contact your primary to communicate.

Figuratively and literally, our heart gives us life. I hope that this American Heart Month, you'll do your best to help it pump blood a little easier.

And as always… Together, WEvolve.