Little changes in the way we live each day can make big differences in the long run, and heart health is no exception. While you probably know the importance of regular exercise and a heart-smart diet, things like your sugar intake, your attitude and your social life all can have significant effects on your cardiovascular system. Be good to your heart every day with these four tips.
1. Cut back on the sugar.
Researchers now believe that chronic inflammation is a major culprit in a number of serious diseases, including heart disease; in fact, it may be a greater cause of heart disease than cholesterol. Sugar is one of the top food triggers of inflammation. Sweet treats like cookies, candy and pastries are obvious sources, but simple carbohydrates, fruit juice, soda and alcoholic beverages are loaded with it as well. Limit your added sugar to 20 grams a day.
Not only can cutting back on sugar help avoid inflammation, it will prevent the "sugar rush" and "sugar crash" that cause insulin levels to quickly spike and drop, which can leave you tired and irritable — and that leads to our next tip.
2. Chill out.
Stress is part of everyday life. Work issues, family conflicts, financial problems, too many demands and not enough time — when it becomes more than we think we can handle, we get annoyed and short-tempered. Blood pressure surges, heart rate increases and blood vessels constrict. The body is primed and ready for a heart attack. In fact, recent research has found that in the two hours following an angry outburst, the risk of heart attack rises nearly fivefold, and the risk of stroke more than threefold.
You can't change what happens around you, but you can change how you react. Do your heart a favor: Make a conscious effort to change your perceptions of stressful events and react without anger. If you're stuck in traffic, use the time to listen to your favorite music. When demands get to be too much, take a break and go for a 10-minute walk.
Even if you can't remove yourself physically from a stressful situation, you can always practice heart-focused breathing: Take five deep, slow breaths, counting to five on each inhale and five on each exhale. Imagine you are actually breathing from your heart. This immediately disrupts the body's stress response, calms you down and helps you refocus.
3. Make social connections.
Depression is another important factor in heart disease and overall health. A research study that followed 7,000 men and women for 17 years found that those who lacked social support, such as friends, relatives, social circles or religious groups, had a death rate three times higher than average.
Social connections are vital to heart health. Make it a point to connect with family members or friends, even if it's just a phone call. Even if your family connections are limited, you can socialize through groups that share your professional or personal interests or religious beliefs, and the Internet offers many opportunities to join local or "virtual" groups.
Reaching out to others, especially those who may be less fortunate than you, can do wonders for your physical, emotional and spiritual health. Consider volunteering at a homeless shelter or children's hospital. Your connection doesn't even have to be human — if you live alone and have time to care for a pet, adopt a dog or cat from a local shelter. The important thing is to make a heartfelt connection.
4. Practice gratitude.
Take time every day to be grateful for what you already have. It's difficult to go anywhere these days without being inundated by advertisements intended to make you feel like you need whatever they're selling, but the truth is, you likely already have plenty to be thankful for. You can be grateful for a warm bed, a close friend, a beautiful sunset, a soothing cup of tea — in fact, just about anything you tend to take for granted. Take a moment to really appreciate it, and let yourself experience true heartfelt gratitude. As you do, you will find that your heart rate slows, your breathing deepens, and you feel more at peace overall.
Learn to carry this "attitude of gratitude" with you throughout the day. When you're stuck in traffic, be grateful that you have a job to go to or a car that works. When bad weather disrupts your schedule, be aware of how fortunate you are not to be living on the street with no place to stay warm.
Start a gratitude journal, and every day add five more things you're thankful for. The more you practice heartfelt gratitude, the more natural it will become — and the more your health will benefit.