Your heart is your body's engine. Much like the engine of a car, you have to take good care of your heart to keep the body running smoothly. If you do not maintain a healthy heart, you may run into problems down the road.
Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. While there are some risk factors that you cannot change - such as sex, age or family history - you still have the power to make crucial lifestyle changes that can prevent heart disease.
This article offers tips for adopting a healthy lifestyle to protect your heart.
Quit smoking today
Smoking tobacco is harmful to many parts of the body, including the heart. In fact, smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease.
Tobacco contains about 4,000 different chemicals. Many of these chemicals can harm the heart and blood vessels. Smoking tobacco can lead to atherosclerosis, or the narrowing of the arteries. Narrowed arteries make it harder for the heart to pump blood and oxygen to the rest of the body, which increases the risk of heart attack.
Nicotine is one of the main chemicals in tobacco. It is the chemical that causes addiction to tobacco and cigarettes. Nicotine narrows your blood vessels, making the heart pump harder, which boosts your blood pressure.
Tobacco smoke also contains carbon monoxide, a chemical that can replace some of the oxygen in your blood. With less oxygen traveling through your blood stream, your heart has to pump harder to provide enough oxygen to your body.
No amount of smoking is good for your heart, not even what some like to call "social smoking" - when you only smoke at a bar or coffee shop with your friends. Every puff of a cigarette increases your risk of heart disease. People who smoke a pack of cigarettes a day have more than double the risk of heart attack than those who do not smoke.
If you are a woman on birth control pills, you should especially avoid smoking. The combination of smoking and the pill increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, especially in women over 35 years of age.
Fortunately, your risk of heart disease decreases soon after quitting smoking. No matter how long you have been smoking, quitting today can make all the difference. Just imagine how good you'll feel knowing that you're treating your heart and body well!
Control your weight
You may gain excess fat as a normal part of aging, from an unhealthy diet or from a lack of exercise. Whatever the cause of your weight gain, shedding that excess fat can protect your heart.
One way to find out if you have a healthy weight is to measure your BMI, or body mass index. BMI is a measure of body fat using height and weight. People with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 means you are overweight. A BMI of 30 or more means you are obese.
Even though BMI is a good measure, it is not perfect. Because muscle is heavier than fat, very muscular people sometimes have high BMIs without the risks associated with those high BMI scores. For this reason, you also may want to measure your waist circumference.
Men with a waist circumference greater than 40 inches and women with a waist size greater than 35 inches are considered overweight.
Any amount of weight loss is good for your health. Losing just 10 percent of your body weight can lower your blood pressure, reduce blood fats and reduce your risk of diabetes.
The best way to lose weight is through diet and exercise. If you want to lose weight, your main focus should be on how many calories you take in and how many calories your burn.
Regular exercise (just 150 minutes per week) and a healthy diet can help protect your heart.
If you are severely obese and cannot seem to lose weight through normal means, you may qualify for weight loss surgery. A growing body of evidence suggests that weight loss surgery dramatically reduces the risk of diabetes and heart-related problems. Ask your doctor if you are a candidate for weight loss surgery, as the procedure is not for everyone.
Eat a healthy diet
If you're having trouble figuring out a heart-healthy diet plan, you may want to try the DASH diet, or the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The DASH diet is low in fat, cholesterol and salt, but high in healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy.
Not all fats are bad for your heart, but there are certain types you should avoid. Saturated fats and trans fats can boost cholesterol levels, increasing your risk of heart disease.
Saturated fats are commonly found in red meat, dairy products, coconut oils and palm oils.
Trans fats are commonly found in deep-fried foods, bakery products, packaged snacks, margarines and crackers. If your food label says "partially hydrogenated," it means your food may contain trans fat.
If you want a heart-healthy diet, you need to do more than cut out unhealthy fats; you also may need to add certain foods, particularly more fruits and vegetables. If you eat five to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables each day, you can lower your risk of both heart disease and cancer.
To protect your heart, you should also limit the amount of alcohol you drink. Men should drink no more than two drinks a day, while women should not drink more than one a day.
You do not have to fully cut out alcohol from your diet. In fact, moderate drinking (a maximum of one or two drinks per day) can protect your heart; any more and you are are putting your health at risk.
Get regular exercise
Combined with a healthy diet, regular exercise is a great way to control weight and protect your heart. Exercise not only helps you burn the calories you have taken in, but also keeps you fit and feeling good.
Most major health organizations recommend that all adults get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity, such as a fast walk. More intense physical activity - such as jogging, bicycling or swimming laps - is also very beneficial.
You should aim to get about 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. Keep in mind, though, that any kind of physical activity can help protect your heart health. You do not need to overstrain your body. Activities like gardening or walking the dog burn calories too. However, you will notice greater benefits if your exercises are more intense, last longer and are more frequent.
Get tested for heart-related conditions
You cannot know if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol unless you get tested for them. By getting screened regularly for these conditions and others, you have a better chance of taking early action and preventing serious problems.
Generally, people start to get screened for blood pressure as children. It is recommended that all adults get their blood pressure checked at least every 2 years. However, people with other heart disease risks - such as obesity or diabetes - should get screened more often.
Beginning at age 20, people should get their cholesterol levels checked at least once every 5 years. People with other heart disease risks should get tested more frequently. Even some children may need frequent cholesterol tests if they have a family history of heart disease.
Diabetes is another risk factor for heart disease. As such, some people may want to get regular diabetes tests, especially if they are overweight or obese.
Doing it without drugs
Protecting your heart does not necessarily require the powers of modern medicine. Through making important lifestyle decisions, you can both protect your heart and boost your overall health.
Quitting your bad habits and starting new healthy habits may be all you need to live without fear of damaging your heart.