How to Improve Your Heart Health Today
About the Author
Abby Campbell, BSc, SFN, SSN, CPT, is a leading professional fitness and nutrition expert, researcher, and published author of One Size Does NOT Fit All Diet Plan, one of Amazon's Top Gluten-Free and Weight Loss Diets. (You may read more about Abby at the bottom of this article.)
When it comes to taking care of your muscles, you're pretty much a pro even if you don't train regularly. It doesn't take much intellect to know that exercise is important for increasing muscular strength. Though we often think of biceps, abdominals, or glutes when working out, we often neglect the importance of cardiovascular health. Though it's important to train all the muscles of the body for good health, the heart muscle is actually the most important muscle of all. If we don't care for it, then training other muscles of the body is pretty much an oxymoron.
With the diabetes and obesity epidemic on the rise in the United States, researchers have taken a specific interest in heart health over the last several years. The good news is that you can add a whopping 14 years onto your life by making a few simple changes to your lifestyle. But, who's to say that we have to stop at 14 years. Let's build on these healthy habits and make those 14 years grow! Below are 9 strategies that you can get started with. Learn how to improve your heart health today.
1 - Exercise Regularly
Compared to remaining overweight, yo-yo dieting is worse for cardiovascular health. Because gaining and losing weight repetitively is so difficult on your heart, it's important to have a training or workout routine that is consistent and a permanent part of your life. On and off again workouts aren't going to cut it when it comes to improving your heart.
Your Plan: Schedule your workouts the same time of day as this will help you create an automatic habit. If you're too tired to do anything after work, then it's best to make an appointment with yourself in the early mornings before you head off to your job. If you have to recruit an exercise buddy to stay on track, then do so. Also, buy basic gym equipment for your home gym if driving to the gym will kill your motivation.
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2 - Pair Strength and Cardio Training
The most asked question for those training or wanting to train is, "Should I do strength training or cardio?" When it comes to cardiovascular health, the answer is a resounding "both!" Scientific studies over the last several years have shown that aerobic exercise (otherwise known as "cardio") reduces bodily inflammation that can lead to heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, you are still at risk for heart disease as anyone who smokes, has high blood pressure, or has high cholesterol if you don't work your heart muscle.
Meanwhile, strength training has been proven to lower bad "LDL" cholesterol, increase good "HDL" cholesterol, and even lower blood pressure. Strength training also increases your metabolic rate which leads to fat loss or maintenance. Both strength and cardio training will further reduce your risk for heart disease.
Your Plan: If you are sedentary, do moderate cardio exercise seven days per week for at least 20 minutes per day. Mild strength training three days per week while leaving one day in between each session is reasonable. For those who are active already, you are probably already meeting recommendations by The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
3 - Strengthen Your Core
Scientific journals have reported that as much as a 10 centimeter gain in the waist region increases risk for heart failure by 16 percent. Metabolic activity in visceral fat causes vascular inflammation and insulin resistance. It even lowers your good "HDL" cholesterol. All in all, the extra fluff around the midsection is a hazard to your cardiovascular health.
Your Plan: Eat more heart healthy foods, including those with essential fats. Omega-3 fatty acids have shown to reduce body fat and strengthen your heart.
Foods High in Niacin or B3
- Fish (i.e., anchovies, tuna, swordfish, king mackerel, and sturgeon)
- Liver and liverwurst
- Chicken (light meat)
- Sun-dried tomatoes
4 - Increase HDL Cholesterol
What is "HDL" cholesterol? Termed "high-density lipoprotein," it helps reduce arterial plaque. It's the good guy. The higher your HDL levels, your risk for coronary heart disease diminishes. Allow its levels to drop just five percent, and you may face a 15 to 20 percent increase in reaping the disease.
Your Plan: A very important vitamin called "niacin" or "B3" can boost your HDL, so make sure you are eating foods high in this nutrient. Some foods high in niacin are included in the list to your right.
5 - Drink Your Vegetables
A 2009 study by the University of California in Davis and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston revealed that those who drank 8 ounces of vegetable juice had an intake of five servings of vegetables per day. Another study that year showed that a diet rich in vegetables lowers heart disease risk. Those in the first study even showed they lost four pounds over 12 weeks.
Your Plan: Drink an 8 ounce glass of low-sodium vegetable juice right before dinner each evening. It will fill you up just enough to help you not overeat.
6 - Reduce Your Salt Intake
According to a 2009 study by the University of California in San Francisco, more than 800,000 "life years" could be saved between 2010 and 2019 for every gram of salt removed from our diet.
Your Plan: Skip the processed foods as they contain tons of sodium. Instead, eat natural foods seasoned with fresh herbs such as basil, rosemary, and cilantro. You may even want to add lemon or lime juice to enhance flavors.
7 - Drink Water
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported a 2009 study on 90,000 women who drank more than two sweet drinks per day. The report concluded that their risk for heart disease increased by 40 percent. That same year, the Harvard School of Public Health reported that even semi-sweet beverages with less sugar and sweetened with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharin actually increased cravings for more sugar.
Your Plan: Drink water instead of sugar-ladened or artificially sweetened beverages. Add fruit, cucumbers, lemon, or lime if you want flavor.
8 - Quit Smoking
Did you know that just one year after quitting smoking, your risk of heart disease drops by more than 50 percent? This is reported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Your Plan: Break the smoking habit. Join a 12-step smoking support group such as Nicotine Anonymous or Smokers Anonymous. Buddy up with a friend who can help you. Family and friends who have already quit smoking can help.
9 - Eliminate Stress
The American Heart Association has reported that dealing with stress can make you more vulnerable to heart attacks. Sitting in traffic while listening to beeping horns can even increase your risk by three times!
Your Plan: Simply stress less! Eliminate unnecessary activities. Identify what you can and cannot control. What you cannot control can be overcome with changing the way you do things. If you can't change the way you do things, then take up a yoga or meditation class that may help relieve some of the stresses in your life.
If you can master just a few of these strategies to start, you will be well on your way to improving your heart health. As you've acquired some strong habits, add a few more to work on. Your heart muscle will thank you for treating it with care.
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About the author
Abby Campbell, BSc, SFN, SSN, CPT, is a leading professional fitness and nutrition expert, researcher, and published author. For the past 10 years, she has coached thousands of women locally and online to lose body fat and lead healthy lifestyles. Her clients have lost thousands of pounds, reclaimed health, and call her “Coach No Gimmick.” She is from Northern Virginia but now resides near Charlotte, North Carolina. Abby has been married for 20 years and has three grown daughters, one of which is autistic. She is a 19 year cancer survivor.
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