The Best and Worst Things You Can Do for Your Heart

February is American Heart Month, and University of Alabama at Birmingham physicians and specialists want to make sure you know the best and worst ways to keep your heart pumping.

According to the 2019 American Heart Association’s Heart and Stroke Statistics update, nearly half (48 percent, 121.5 million in 2016) of all adults in the United States have some type of cardiovascular disease.

Because there is an opportunitiy for almost half of Americans to help prevent heart disease, UAB Division of Cardiovascular Disease Assistant Professor Joanna Joly, M.D., says there are several ways people can be proactive about their heart health to combat those statistics. 

“Generally speaking, the best things you can do for your heart are routine exercise, maintaining a balanced diet and finding creative hobbies,” Joly said. “Gradual, sustainable changes are preferable to sudden, dramatic changes or fads.” 

Exercise

Sedentary lifestyles increase all causes of mortality, double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity, and increase the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, depression and anxiety. 

According to the World Health Organization, 60 to 85 percent of people in the world — from both developed and developing countries — lead sedentary lifestyles. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of children are also insufficiently active, with serious implications for their future health. 

According to the AHA, sedentary jobs have increased 83 percent since 1950. Physically active jobs now make up less than 20 percent of the United States workforce, down from roughly half of jobs in 1960. 

Joly says people should participate in any type of physical activity that gets them moving and raises their heart rate. 

The AHA recommends getting at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity — or a combination of both — preferably spread throughout the week. Kids ages 6-17 should get at least 60 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity, mostly aerobic. 

“Consistency is key,” Joly said. 

Physical activity is linked with better sleep, memory, balance and cognitive ability and less risk of weight gain, chronic disease, dementia and depression. It is one of the most important things you can do for your health and well-being. 

Diet

According to the AHA, heart disease is the leading global cause of death. In fact, 2,200 Americans die each day from heart disease. Healthy eating is a major factor in combating plaque build-up in coronary arteries, which results in the most common type of heart disease — coronary artery disease. 

The AHA has developed Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations to help people prevent or manage cardiovascular disease. The recommendations emphasize eating a variety of nutritious foods from all food groups, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes, and non-tropical vegetable oils. 

Carleton Rivers, M.S., RDN, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences in the UAB School of Health Professions and program director of the Clinical Track/Dietetic Internship, says making changes to how we eat and drink can improve heart health.   

“Healthy eating is just one part of living a healthy lifestyle, but it is a big part,” Rivers said. “When it comes to preventing heart disease, it is important to limit sugary drinks and sweet treats, fatty meats, solid fats like butter, and foods high in sodium. Notice I said limit — not exclude. You can still have these items, but just not every day or in large amounts.” 

Rivers says limiting how much sugar you consume can be a good starting place for making healthy choices. 

“Sugar is quite prevalent in the typical American diet because it is in so many of our processed and packaged products,” she said. “These types of sugars are referred to as added sugar — they don’t naturally occur in the product but are added for various reasons. Added sugars are empty calories, and our bodies don’t need them because they contain no nutritional value.” 

The AHA recommends a daily limit of added sugars to 36 grams (9 teaspoons) for men and 25 grams (6 teaspoons) for women and kids ages 2-18. Some of the biggest sources of added sugar in the American diet include sugar-sweetened beverages, baked items like cakes and muffins, candy, and ice cream. Consistently consuming large amounts of added sugar can lead to unwanted weight gain and is also linked to increased risks of diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and inflammation in the body. 

“Many people don’t realize how much added sugar is in some of the things they eat and drink on a daily basis,” Rivers said. “For instance, 16 ounces of orange juice has 40 grams of added sugar. That is more than the AHA’s recommended daily limit for men and women.” 

She says a common misconception is that drinking fruit juice is a healthy alternative to soda; but a 20-ounce bottle of soda contains around 35 grams of added sugar, which is less than 16 ounces of orange juice. 

“That’s why it is so important to read the nutrition fact labels on what we are eating and drinking and not rely on our assumptions,” Rivers said. 

Nutrition fact labels are located on the back of food and beverage items and include important information about nutrition content per serving size and ingredients. To learn more about how to effectively read a nutrition fact label, visit the AHA website

Joly says, for those who are adventurous and serious about dieting, she recommends plant-based diets. 

“Plant-based diets offer virtually every nutrient the body needs to stay healthy,” Joly said. 

What about caffeine?

“For patients who are prone to arrhythmias, any type or amount of caffeine is generally a bad idea,” Joly said. “For general health, drinking coffee actually seems to be protective. There are no randomized controlled trials examining this question, so the strength of evidence supporting that is not as much as other recommendations.” 

Hobbies

Many people feel stress in different ways and react to it in different ways. How much stress you experience and how you react to it can lead to a wide variety of health problems, like hypertension — and that is why it is critical to know what you can do about it. 

One way to manage stress is to find a hobby or activity you enjoy doing. Joly says people should allow themselves freedom to explore new hobbies at any age. 

“I recommend hobbies that encourage an active lifestyle, such as walking, hiking, running, biking, swimming or dancing,” Joly said. “Having a creative outlet is also very important, whether it’s music, art, performing or writing.” 

Joly says simply enjoying the talents of others can be very relaxing, such as attending a concert or play, seeing an museum exhibit, or reading a good book. 

“Practicing something you love can bring you joy and reduce stress,” she said. 

One of the best things you can do to ensure you are living heart-healthy is to see a physician regularly.

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