7 Easy Lifestyle Changes That Are Good for Your Heart

by Rachel Hedstrom

There are certain numbers that everyone should know. After all, blood pressure, cholesterol and heart rate are all important stats to keep tabs on. But here’s one more number to remember: Here are seven healthy lifestyle habits that are good for your heart (and your overall) health.

1. Sit less.

“How much we sit today should scare people,” said Rishin Shah, M.D., an interventional cardiologist on the medical staff of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano in Plano, Texas. “People who sit more than eight hours a day are at increased risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes — even if they exercise!” Noting that the average American sits or lies down for up to 21 hours a day, Dr. Shah recommends movement of any kind throughout the day to offset that sedentary lifestyle.

Bill Ahlswede, a heart attack survivor and a member of Mended Hearts Chapter 34 in Loma Linda, California, makes getting activity into his day a priority. “My wife and I go to the store together, and I like to ride my bicycle a lot,” he said. In his retirement, he has made activity a priority.

“You have to have something to look forward to, an action item in your life, every day. Go swimming, ride a bike, go see your grandson’s game — anything you can have in your life to look forward to that gets you moving,” he said.

At work, take breaks and use them to walk around the block — or up and down stairs if possible. Using a standing desk and alternating it with periods of sitting can help, too.

2. Listen to music.

When you hear “your” song on the radio, your first inclination is to turn it up, right? Researchers say that it’s more than just a boost of good mood; it may actually help boost your heart health, too.

In the Harvard Health Blog, Julie Corliss, executive editor of the Harvard Heart Letter, points to the many benefits of music on health that studies have found over the years, including allowing people to exercise longer, improving blood vessel function, easing anxiety and helping people recover from heart surgery feel less pain.

Science aside, the feeling of hearing music you enjoy is palpable.

Ahlswede is also a pianist who played with his band on the weekends for many years. One of the things that kept him playing gigs, he said, was seeing the positive effect that music has on a crowd.

“It’s the same thing when you’re listening to your ‘jam’ on the radio,” he said. “You immediately go for the volume control and you turn it up. When it happens, the music goes somewhere else in your psyche, in your being. Music endorphins? I don’t know what you call it, but music makes it all right for three minutes anyway.”

In the two years since his triple bypass surgery, Bill says he has become more aware of things like that. “Everybody needs those little three-minute intervals throughout the day.”

In addition to the many areas of the brain that music engages, studies have shown that music can alter your brain chemistry, which can produce cardiovascular benefits. Sound processing begins in the brainstem, which could explain why listening to relaxing music may lower brainstemcontrolled activities like breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.

3. Limit screen time.

“Screen time is a triple threat because it causes us to be sedentary, leads to snacking and overeating, and the commercials can also power our appetites for highly processed foods,” Dr. Shah said. “This is a perfect storm for heart disease.”

Before looking to your children and their many devices with a raised eyebrow, consider your own usage. “We hear a lot about how kids should limit screen time, but the reality is that most adults need to do this as well,” he said.

According to a 2018 report by the Nielsen Company, adults 18 and older spend more than 11 hours each day using electronic devices.

Experts say that being mindful about the number of hours you are in front of your screen, and doing your best to maximize life outside of electronic devices, is a good start.

4. Get more sleep.

Most adults need at least seven (there’s that number again!) hours of sleep each night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Sleep Foundation. Lack of proper sleep — which reportedly impacts more than one in three Americans — can lead to a nightmare: increased risk for heart attack, asthma, diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure.

How to get those critical seven hours? The CDC recommends:

• Go to bed at roughly the same time every night and get up at the same time each morning (yes, even on weekends).

• Get out in the natural sunlight, especially earlier in the day.

• Stay active, since physical activity during the day is key.

• Limit eating and drinking within a few hours of bedtime.

• Avoid sitting in front of the screen on your computer or smartphone before bed; use a blue light filter if you must.

• Keep your bedroom dark, quiet and cool.

• Talk to your physician if you snore or wake up a lot during the night, as these could be signs of sleep apnea or other conditions that disrupt your rest and put you at risk.

Getting the right amount and quality of sleep is essential to your heart health. Added bonus: The energy you get from a good night’s rest makes for a great day ahead!

5. Track what you eat.

Experts agree that one of the most important contributors to heart health is the food we put in our bodies. “Food is truly the best medicine because the right diet can treat and reverse heart disease,” Dr. Shah said.

A good first step in improving your diet is tracking what you eat. Dr. Shah recommends starting slowly, worrying less about calories and more about what kinds of food you’re eating, and how often. (How many desserts did you have this week? How often do you snack?)

“It’s difficult to improve anything without getting an accurate baseline of 5 Deborah Flaherty-Kizer finds happiness in writing; Sal SantaLucia promotes proper hydration for heart health. NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2019 HEARTBEAT 13 what you are currently doing,” he said. “From there, you can take a measured approach.”

Deborah Flaherty-Kizer, 62, a member of Mended Hearts Chapter 13 in Albany, New York, has spent years battling heart disease. By tracking her food choices, and limiting things like starches and sodium, she finds success. “I write down everything I eat. Tracking and planning are important, particularly if I know I’m going to have a busy day or week. I prep things in advance,” she said. “When I don’t plan, I find that’s when I say, ‘Oh, let’s just go get pizza.’”

When she and her family go out to eat, Flaherty-Kizer looks at the menu in advance to make the healthiest choice possible. Add fruits and vegetables by packing them in your lunch for work or eating them as snacks during the day.

6. Drink more water.

Sal SantaLucia, a heart attack survivor and member of Mended Hearts Chapter 312 in Fort Myers, Florida, has adopted a completely new lifestyle that, at 80 years old, he says has him feeling better than ever. Calling himself “The Italian Vegan,” SantaLucia lives a life that now includes a plant-based diet, plenty of activity and proper hydration.

“I put six, 16.9-ounce bottles of water on my counter every morning,” SantaLucia said. “I never fail to finish those, which ensures I get at least 101 ounces every day.” In addition to that, SantaLucia drinks sugar-free sports drinks when he works out, and he gets water through the vegetables he eats, as well. (Always check the ingredients of sugar-free drinks and make sure they’re not filled with chemicals.)

“Drinking more water was important for me,” SantaLucia notes. “I put a little lemon in all my water. I may drink other things throughout the day as well, but always the water.”

Talk with your doctor about the right amount of water for you, as amounts can vary. But understand how important it is: Keeping the body hydrated helps the heart more easily pump blood throughout the body.

7. Make time for creativity.

Enjoying creative pursuits is one of the first things we learn as children — but it’s something many find little time for as lives get busier. Perhaps it’s time to get those crayons and coloring books out, since science has found that engaging in creative behaviors can actually improve brain function, mental health and physical health.

Dopamine, the “feel-good chemical,” is a natural antidepressant that the brain releases when we are engaged in creative pursuits, which can be anything from painting to needlepoint, dancing to woodworking, writing, weaving, sewing, gardening and more.

Creative pursuits have also been shown to be positive ways for your brain to process experiences in a way that reduces anxiety, depression and stress. When Flaherty-Kizer was recovering from heart surgery, she found solace in writing. Her reflections led her to publish a book, Our Journey of the Heart: Learning to Thrive Not Just Survive With Heart Disease.

“I like to write, so I do a lot of writing,” she said. “I also do cross-stich, or needlepoint, when I can, but I really like to write.” Flaherty-Kizer chooses to write pieces that center on personal reflections and has learned that the boost in creativity helps her as she continues to heal.

While each of these changes are simple and easy to make, together, they can add up to a healthier lifestyle for you and your heart.