Although many Americans know about heart disease prevention, this condition continues to be the number one cause of death. In fact, approximately 600,000 people in the U.S. die from all types of heart disease combined including heart failure, irregular heartbeat, heart valve problems and the most common—coronary heart disease. Risk factors such as a family history of heart disease cannot be changed, but most heart disease risk is due to certain habits or lifestyle choices that can be changed.
Habits That Hurt Your Heart
Reducing exposure to tobacco may be the most important way to prevent premature death from heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Smoking-related habits include:
- Lighting up: Directly inhaling the compounds in cigarette smoke contributes to factors that harm the heart such as the buildup of plaque in coronary arteries, an increased tendency of blood to clot and a lower HDL (the so-called good”) cholesterol. People who smoke pipes and cigars are also at an increased risk of death from heart disease and stroke.
- Hanging around smoky places: People who live with smokers or work around people who smoke may not be able to radically alter their exposure to secondhand smoke, but people who spend too much time in smoky bars, restaurants, casinos, etc. increase their risk of heart disease-related disability and death.
Limiting foods found in the typical American diet is also a modifiable behavior. Some bad habits:
- Reaching for the salt shaker: The white stuff in the salt shaker is about 40 percent sodium. Sodium contributes to high blood pressure—a major risk factor for heart disease. According to the National Institutes of Health, healthy adults should stick to 2,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium daily (only about one teaspoon) and people with high blood pressure should limit their intake to 1,500 mg or less. Cooking without salt is another way to reduce intake, and limiting salty processed foods is also important.
- Eating the wrong fatty foods: According to an American Heart Association survey of Americans, fewer than half are aware that good fats can reduce their risk of heart disease. These include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are mostly vegetable based (such as olive oil, canola oil and soybean oil) and tend to come in liquid form. Nuts and seeds are also high in good fat. On the other hand, bad or “saturated” fats are usually in solid or semi-solid form, such as butter, lard and vegetable shortening. They are also found in meats, especially red meats. Poultry is lower in harmful fat and fish contains many good fats including omega-3 fatty acids.
- Bypassing the fruits and veggies: Steering clear of the produce aisle may contribute to obesity and high blood pressure, which are both risk factors for heart disease. The vitamins, minerals and fiber in fruits and veggies are all beneficial to heart health and the American Heart Association recommends at least eight servings or (4.5 cups) of a variety of colorful produce each day.
- Avoiding roughage: Americans tend to make grains a large part of their diets, but most stick to refined grains such as white bread and other starchy foods that have little or no fiber. Fiber-rich foods such as whole grain products are known to decrease bad cholesterol, and the USDA recommends that half of the grains Americans eat each day should be whole grains. Foods such as whole-grain cereals, breads and even popcorn can fit the bill.
Physical activity is imperative for good heart health. Thirty minutes a day of moderate to brisk exercise on most days of the week has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and many other medical problems. Walking is the most effective form of exercise for heart health, according to the CDC, and some research shows that for every hour of walking, life expectancy increases by two years. There are a number of habits that contribute to inactivity:
- Sitting in front of the TV: People in the U.S spend (on average) almost three hours watching TV every day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey. Most people typically sit for long periods while doing this, which can contribute to weight gain. Cutting back and substituting an activity that requires moving around is one option, as is getting up frequently or exercising while the TV is on.
- Using too much technology: While it’s necessary for functioning in today’s world, some people spend long hours on their posteriors at home, school or the workplace using some form of technology. According to the CDC, sedentary jobs have increased since 1950 by over 80 percent. Once again, frequent breaks are essential and if possible, taking a walk or an exercise class during lunch breaks. An increasingly popular option at some workplaces is so-called “walking desks” that employ use of a treadmill.
(Also read: Health Risks & Effects Of A Sedentary Lifestyle.)
Traits that are a part of human nature can be the heart’s worst enemy. Some examples:
- Procrastinating: Eating better. Getting more exercise. Seeing the doctor for a checkup. Although these may be typical resolutions, many people put them off or don’t do them at all. Early prevention and detection are the best insurance against heart problems.
- Ignoring the doctor’s advice: Especially for people with underlying medical conditions that contribute to heart disease (such as high blood pressure and diabetes), promptly following doctor’s orders is imperative. Lifestyle changes, medication adjustments and recommendations for diagnostic testing are sometimes put off or completely ignored by people at risk for heart disease.
- Getting stressed out on a regular basis: Feelings of stress can cause the release of the hormone adrenalin, which causes a rise in heart rate and blood pressure. Although it’s not conclusive, research suggests that chronic stress may damage artery walls and contribute to coronary heart disease and other circulatory system problems.
Turning Over a New Leaf
The best way to break bad habits is different from one person to the next. Becoming aware of the behavior is the first step, and then finding ways to modify it is the second step. Gradual change usually works best, and support from other people provides valuable help. Experts say that breaking a habit doesn’t necessarily erase it from the brain, but rather suppresses it while the new behavior is strengthened.
Some daily practices to help keep a positive outlook are:
- Pep talks
- Relaxation activities
- Finding pleasure in new behaviors
Before making any major changes in your habits, have a full medical exam and seek a health professional’s advice.
Setting realistic goals is the best way to break harmful habits. Failing one, two or even ten times does not mean it can’t happen. According to the American Lung Association, for instance, most smokers go through multiple attempts to quit before finally succeeding. Perseverance and small rewards along the way can lead to a healthier heart.