Here’s How to Have Your Most Heart-Healthy Day
Improving your heart health doesn't mean overhauling your routine. Here are some easy ways to incorporate heart-boosting activities to your daily life.
Wake up with gratitude
Good heart health starts in the mind. According to the American Heart Association, a mental state of stress can increase blood pressure, which can worsen heart health. "Stress can raise the level of certain hormones and rev up the sympathetic nervous system, which, if it occurs chronically, may not be optimal for health," says Robert Ostfeld, M.D., cardiologist, director of preventive cardiology at Montefiore Health System, and founder and director of the Montefiore-Einstein Cardiac Wellness Program. To set the tone for the day, when you first wake up, try a mental technique called gratitude to remind yourself of all the good things in your life, before you start getting overwhelmed by the tasks of the day. 'Having a grateful outlook is a way to help keep the bad from overpowering the good in your life," says Deborah Serani, PsyD, award-winning author of Living with Depression and a psychology professor at Adelphi University. "Like a glass half full, learning how to be grateful can help put stress into perspective." In addition to lowering stress levels, research from the University of Illinois shows that a more grateful mindset can lead you to take greater care of your health. Try these other morning mindfulness exercises.
After you get out of bed, try a few basic stretches to loosen up your muscles and joints after lying down for so long. Although stretching doesn't have a direct effect on the heart, "it is very helpful for keeping the body's muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints healthy by reducing the risk of injury, soreness, aches, and pains during exercise," says Kerry J. Stewart, Ed.D, director of clinical and research exercise physiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "This will allow you to do more aerobic and resistance exercise, which keep the heart healthy, at a higher pace and for a longer time because you won't be limited by your musculoskeletal system." Check out these easy warm-up exercises to do before a workout.
Do some light yoga
Now that you've stretched, you're ready for quick yoga session. This can be done right on your bedroom floor to help center your mind and body for the day ahead. In a study from Sweden participants with a heart problem called atrial fibrillation had a significantly lower blood pressure and heart rate after 12 weeks of practicing yoga. Plus, yogic breathing can help regulate heart rate and improve respiratory function. "Daily breathing practices may 'train' the body to be calmer," says Emma Seppala, PhD, author of The Happiness Track and a Stanford University psychologist who's done research on yogic breathing. "Preliminary studies have found that regularly practicing breathing exercises lowers one's level of the stress hormone cortisol. Having lower levels of this hormone may be indicative of an overall calmer state of being, which may translate into less reactivity in the face of inevitable life stressors and less risk of heart disease." These are some yoga poses to do every day.
Kick off your day with aerobic exercise
After a short yoga session, the American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity five days a week. "Aerobic exercise has numerous beneficial effects that reduce heart disease risk factors," Dr. Stewart says. "It lowers blood pressure, blood glucose levels, blood cholesterol levels, body fat, reduces inflammation, and more. It also has direct beneficial effects on the heart's pumping efficiency and also the ability of the blood vessels throughout the body to improve overall circulation by allowing the blood being pumped by the heart to flow more easily." Go out for a morning jog, or use an exercise machine while watching the morning news, reading, or listening to music to get you energized for the day. Can't hop on a treadmill? Here's how to turn household chores into legit workouts.
Have a heart-healthy breakfast
By now you've worked up an appetite, but don't reach for the bacon. "I start my day off with a four-ounce glass of 100 percent grape juice, which contains many of the same polyphenols and heart health benefits of red wine, thanks to the Concord grape," says trainer and registered dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of Belly Fat Diet For Dummies. According to the Mayo Clinic, some studies do show the heart-healthiness of grape juice—but drink it in moderation, as it does contain sugar. "I pair this with a cup of low-fat Greek yogurt, because including low-fat dairy as part of your diet may help to reduce blood pressure, providing heart health benefits," Palinski-Wade says. "The protein from the yogurt helps to fight hunger and cravings throughout the morning." Egg whites are another protein-packed option—although Dr. Ostfeld actually recommends a vegetarian or vegan diet for heart health. "We encourage patients to adopt a plant-based diet, but we do not want perfection to be the enemy of good, so if a patient chooses to continue eating some animal products, I would steer them toward fish and egg whites," he says. Try one of these high-protein breakfast options.
Brush your teeth
Now it's time to get ready for work. Believe it or not, faithful daily teeth-brushing (avoid these teeth-brushing mistakes!) can actually lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. A study from the University of Pennsylvania showed that treating gum disease lessened the consequences of common health conditions, including heart issues. This happens because gum problems can let bacteria into the bloodstream, affecting the arteries and heart, as a study from the Harvard-affiliated Forsyth Institute showed.
Park far away and take the stairs
Although it might not seem like much, your heart will thank you for not taking the easy way out throughout your day. So when you get to work, don't park in the closest spot to the door, and skip the wait for the elevator. "I recommend patients weave exercise into their day: take the stairs, park a little further away, walk the extra block," Dr. Ostfeld says. "Every little bit counts." So true—just ask your Fitbit or other fitness tracker, which can help you see how much extra exercise you're actually incorporating into your day. "Structured exercise is great, but if you work out for an hour and sit the rest of the day, that is still less healthy for your heart than just moving all throughout the day," Palinski-Wade says. "Aim for a minimum of 10,000 steps per day on your fitness tracker," she says. Although studies haven't yet linked fitness trackers to less heart disease, it can still help you monitor your progress. Here's how to sneak in more steps without really trying.
Finesse stress at work
From deadlines to overbearing bosses, work can be extremely stressful. But it's important for your heart health not to let it take over. "Workplace stress has been linked to coronary heart disease in studies," Dr Seppala says. "In a large-scale study of over 3,000 employees, results showed a strong link between leadership behavior and heart disease in employees—stress-producing bosses are literally bad for the heart!" But workplace stress is almost inevitable, so what can you do? "I suggest if my patients feel stress coming on, to stop, and take three slow deep breaths," Dr. Ostfeld says. This helps slow your heart rate and get oxygen to your brain, so you can get out of panic mode and start coming up with productive solutions. Also, remember to take a break and move around every once in a while. "For every hour that you sit, get up and stretch or move for at least two minutes," Palinski-Wade says. "This boosts circulation, helps to promote a healthy body weight, and lowers stress levels." Dr. Ostfeld also recommends five-minute breaks of calisthenics, exercises that use your own body weight for resistance, like push ups.
Use lunchtime for a walk or workout
Your lunch break can be a great time to get in some stress-busting fresh air and extra exercise with a brisk walk—and if you do it with a coworker, it can be even better for you. "A lack of bonding within the workplace has been shown to increase psychological distress, but positive social interactions at work have been shown to boost employee health by lowering heart rate and blood pressure," Dr. Seppala says. If you have a gym at work or close by, use the time to get in a workout of resistance or interval training. "Resistance training is especially important in increasing your metabolic rate, which allows for burning of more calories at rest and during exercise," Dr. Stewart says. Use your own body weight, resistance bands, or weights. Interval training alternates between different exercises, with short periods of rest. "Recent studies suggest alternating high intensity exercise with low intensity exercise may result in even greater benefits to the heart and muscles," Dr. Stewart says. "The overall amount of work being done is higher because the short intervals of low intensity allows for some recovery from fatigue."
Have a healthy afternoon snack
Afternoons are notorious for a drop in blood sugar that can kill productivity. To beat the slump, keep heart-healthy snacks on hand. "This can help to prevent excessive hunger and cravings, which can lead to poor food choices," Palinski-Wade says. "I keep in-shell pistachios on hand at my office for a quick and easy snack option that provides a good source of protein, fiber, and heart-healthy fats." The leftover shells are a reminder for portion control too. Another option is to "leave a small bowl of veggies or fruit around—that way, if you get hungry you can reach for a healthful snack," Dr. Ostfeld suggests. Here are more snacks to keep in your desk drawer.
Reset your mind after work
Zoning out on your commute home can be a good stress reliever to lower your heart rate—try listening to mood-boosting music if you're driving, or close your eyes and do some deep breathing if you're on a train or bus. If you're greeted by a pet when you get home, take the opportunity to indulge in some pet therapy. "Research shows that just looking into the eyes of your pet can lower your heart rate," Dr. Seppala says, due to the effects of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. Then retreat to your bedroom before dinner to change your clothes and sneak in another quick breathing session to release the day's stress. Dr. Seppala suggests "alternate nostril breathing" by alternately closing each nostril with your finger. "Preliminary research suggests that breathing through the right nostril oxygenates the left side of the brain, while breathing through the left nostril oxygenates the right side of the brain," she says. "Do this with your eyes closed for about five minutes." Palinski-Wade also says meditation or breathing exercises before a meal help avoid stress-eating.
Cook a nutritious dinner
Don't undo the day's heart-boosting activities with a greasy pizza or salty take-out. Instead, cook your own heart-healthy alternative. "Cooking your own food is always preferred for heart health as you have more control over what goes into it, and you're more likely to try new foods," Palinski-Wade says. "Twice a week I enjoy a fatty fish such as salmon paired with steamed vegetables and a whole grain, such as brown rice. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish may have a favorable impact on blood lipids, helping to boost heart health. Adding the whole grains and vegetables to the meal provides an added source of soluble fiber and antioxidants to further improve heart health." To avoid overeating, adopt mindful eating habits like removing distractions and putting down your fork between bites. A well-balanced dinner can help avoid night snacking, but if you do get hungry before bed, Palinski-Wade suggests heart-healthy options like air-popped popcorn, or a piece of fresh fruit or vegetable. Here are the best healthy-eating tips of all time.
Relax into a heart-healthy bedtime routine
Resist the urge to binge-watch your current Netflix obsession, and try to head to bed at the same time each night. "Heart-healthy activities include setting a regular bedtime to get into a good sleeping pattern," Dr. Ostfeld says. According to the National Sleep Foundation, people who don't sleep enough are at greater risk for heart disease, possibly due to its effects on metabolism, blood pressure, and inflammation. While in bed, try a mindful meditation to help you relax into sleep. "Repeating 'om' chanting at least nine times, and then alternating loud chanting with silent recollection for the next five times takes us from sound to silence, slowly leading us to harmony and eventually silencing the mind," says Savita Joshi, E-RYT, MBA, B.E, a yoga therapist at Yoga Bharati. Finally, as the old song goes, "count your blessings instead of sheep," to return full-circle to the gratitude you practiced at the start of the day.