Here’s an encouraging stat: A full 80 percent of cardiovascular disease is preventable, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). While there’s absolutely times when you do everything right—sip all the green juices, do all the yoga—and you still get sick, the majority of the risks associated with cardiovascular problems (including heart attacks and strokes) are linked to diet and lifestyle.
If you’ve never heard of the AHA’s “Life’s Simple 7,” it’s basically a list of seven lifestyle habits that are scientifically linked to boosting heart health. The list was put together back in 2010, when the AHA set the ambitious goal of reducing stroke mortality 20 percent by 2020. (It’s actually on track to be reduced by 30 percent, though the report won’t be released until later this year.)
However, a study published in February indicated that there was one factor for heart health that isn’t on the Life’s Simple 7, but should be: good sleep. “Sleep, like diet and physical activity, is a health behavior we engage in every day,” associate research scientist Nour Makarem, PhD, the study’s author, told Medical Xpress. According to the study, participants who got seven to eight hours of sleep a night as well as followed the Life’s Simple 7 guidelines had 61 percent lower odds of having heart disease—pretty powerful.
Here, Nieca Goldberg, MD, the medical director of New York University’s Women’s Heart Program, explains how each of the Life’s Simple 7 *and* sleep are all connected to heart health. These are the most important tips for a healthy heart you’ll find. Keep reading for the full intel.
Scroll down to see how to promote heart health, based off of Life’s Simple 7.
1. don’t smoke
Smoking ups the risk of heart disease by a whopping 60 percent, and if you think vaping is the loophole that will save you, it won’t; Dr. Goldberg says vaping is also bad for cardiovascular health. While it’s too early for long-term studies to show the full effects, preliminary studies have shown nothing but negatives.
2. Eat better
This second tip from the Simple 7, eat better, is pretty broad but Dr. Goldberg offers some clarification on what exactly this means and how to apply it to your life: “Whole grains like steel-cut oatmeal and quinoa, beans, fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, and colorful fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants are all linked to good cardiovascular health,” she says. If that sounds a lot like the Mediterranean diet, you’re right; the eating plan is the one most beloved by cardiovascular doctors because of its links to long-term heart health.
Watch the video below to learn more about the Mediterranean diet:
3. get active
According to data from over 300 scientific studies, physically active people have up to a 50 percent lower risk of sudden heart attack or cardiac arrest. “A good goal to aim for is getting 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week,” Dr. Goldberg says. Obviously this is a bit hard to do in our current climate, but going for social distancing-appropriate daily walks or getting in a streaming workout in your living room can count.
4. maintain a healthy weight
While it’s of course detrimental to lose too much weight, obesity has been associated with an increased risk of heart problems, like metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Dr. Goldberg says that two key ways to help maintain a healthy weight is to pay attention to portion size and eliminate overly processed foods as much as possible, as they can be high in sugar, sodium, and other ingredients not optimal for heart health.
5. manage blood pressure
The most important way to manage blood pressure according to Dr. Goldberg: keep sodium intake at a minimum, capping it at 1,500 milligrams a day. Especially in packaged foods, sodium can be a sneaky addition. Even foods that don’t taste salty, like veggie burgers, bread, and pasta sauce, can have sodium in high amounts.
6. control cholesterol
While foods with healthy fats, like nuts and avocados, are good for heart health, foods with high amounts of saturated fat aren’t because they can increase your LDL cholesterol levels (aka the bad stuff), which can cause heart problems. If you want to lower your LDL cholesterol, some tips you can put into practice include upping your soluble fiber, eating more seafood, and exercising.
7. Reduce blood sugar
Functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, MD, went so far as to say that protecting against insulin resistance is the number one factor for living a long, healthy life—and that’s directly related to maintaining balanced blood sugar levels. “Diets high in sugar and carbohydrates lead to obesity and obesity increases risk for diabetes,” Dr. Goldberg says, which is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Instead, fill up on foods that bring balance, including whole grains, beans, legumes, and green vegetables.
Bonus: get good sleep
Dr. Goldberg, for one, is in favor of adding sleep to the AHA’s Life’s Simple 7 for a healthy heart. “Sleep is important for heart health because sleeping less than seven hours a night raises blood pressure, [and] leads to arrhythmias and weight gain,” she says, reiterating some of the finding in the new study. Besides benefitting your heart, getting adequate sleep is important for brain and mental health, too.
Combined and practiced on a regular basis, these tips go a long way in terms of cardiovascular health. Just a little advice to take to, well, heart.