9 Surprising Ways to Boost Your Heart Health

By Julie Stewart |

These little-known tips can keep your ticker beating stronger and longer.

older couple eatingEat less, move more, don’t smoke. You know these heart-smart rules, well, by heart. Even so, cardiovascular disease remains America’s biggest killer, and the risk increases as you get older. But whatever your age, it’s never too late to protect your ticker.

“Eighty percent of heart disease is actually preventable,” says Martha Gulati, M.D., president-elect of the American Society for Preventive Cardiology. The key? Taking action now. These simple tips will help you get started.

Heart Tip #1: Rethink Your Fish Oil Supplement

The best way to reap the heart-healthy benefits of fish oil is to eat two servings a week of actual fish. That’s preferable to taking a fish oil supplement, unless your doctor has prescribed one, says Dr. Gulati. “Fish oil is good for you. Get it from fish if you can.”

Research suggests that highly purified prescription-only fish oil can help reduce heart-threatening fats in your bloodstream. However, over-the-counter (OTC) fish oil supplements are not proven to have that effect, says Dr. Gulati.

A new study presented at the American Heart Association’s annual meeting revealed that people who took fish oil supplements had no less risk of cardiovascular disease than people who didn’t. Plus, since OTC supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it’s difficult to know what’s really in them.

In fact, OTC fish oil can contain saturated fats that could increase your cholesterol. That’s not great for heart health, says Dr. Gulati.

Heart Tip #2: Double-Check Before You Pop “Baby” Aspirin

You might have heard that everyone over a certain age should take low-dose aspirin, often called “baby” aspirin. Its blood-thinning properties are said to reduce heart attack risk.

But providers no longer make this one-size-fits-all recommendation. Yes, an aspirin a day makes sense for some people, says Dr. Gulati. For example, if you have existing heart disease, a stent, a previous bypass surgery, or increased plaque buildup as revealed by a coronary artery calcium scan, your provider will likely recommend it.

For many people, though, the risks of daily aspirin—especially the increased risk of bleeding—may outweigh the benefits. “In general, it’s a discussion for the patient with their doctor about how high of a risk they are. Then they can make that decision together,” says Dr. Gulati.

Heart Tip #3: Tell Your Doctor About All Your Prescriptions

Yes, all of them, not just the heart-related ones. You know that medication list your provider makes you fill out? If you do it thoroughly, you can help your heart. Many common medications for osteoarthritis, autoimmune diseases, cancer, asthma, and other conditions can negatively affect your heart, says Dr. Gulati.

Your provider can help you determine whether you need to consider alternatives or just take additional steps to watch out for your ticker. For example, you might be advised to have additional heart tests while you’re on that medication or shortly after you stop it.

Heart Tip #4: Go Easy on the Alcohol

Vino lovers often cite research showing that red wine is good for the heart because its grape compounds might help keep arteries clear. The reality: These potential benefits shouldn’t be an excuse to drink more than usual, or even at all. “I don’t recommend that people start drinking to prevent heart disease, for sure,” says Dr. Gulati.

As for the idea that alcohol can reduce your heart disease risk? “The data isn’t as strong as people want it to be,” Dr. Gulati says. “Plus, drinking alcohol, especially in excess, can have some negative effects as well.”

For example, alcohol can raise blood pressure, which can be a problem for many. Three out of four adults age 60 and older already have high blood pressure.

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Heart Tip #5: Focus on Adding Healthy Food Instead of Cutting Things

Low-fat and low-carb diets come and go, but a well-rounded approach to healthy eating is always a sustainable way to protect your heart.

“Moderation will be the key,” says Dr. Gulati. “Think about getting more of the substances you need rather than focusing on what you should eliminate,” she says. A good place to start is a nutrient-dense Mediterranean-style diet, which is more of a lifestyle than a diet, says Dr. Gulati.

Fill your plate with fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, fish, and low-fat poultry. You’ll get a mix of protein, carbs, fat, and heart-protecting antioxidants.

“Every day, I try to count colors of the rainbow,” says Dr. Gulati. “How many colors did I have? This tells me if I’m getting enough fruits and vegetables.”

Heart Tip #6: Aim to Avoid Diabetes

Over time, high blood sugar can damage blood vessels and harm your heart. “Once you have diabetes, we always say you have heart disease until proven otherwise,” says Dr. Gulati. “That’s how strong the risk of diabetes and heart disease is.”

This is exactly why screening for diabetes and taking steps to lower your risk are important. Your provider can easily check your blood sugar with a blood test.

Another thing to watch for is metabolic syndrome. This is a cluster of risk factors:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Elevated blood sugar or prediabetes
  • A high waist circumference
  • High triglycerides, a type of fat in your bloodstream
  • Low HDL (often called “good”) cholesterol

“I tell people that if their waist enters the room before they do, they might have metabolic syndrome,” says Dr. Gulati. If that sounds familiar, talk with your provider about ways to cut your risk factors.

Heart Tip #7: Get Your Sleep

The worse you sleep, the higher your risk of heart failure, according to research in Circulation. People who sleep better may also have lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and less inflammation, says study author Lu Qi, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology and director of the Tulane University Obesity Research Center.

So how can you snooze more soundly? “Healthy diet habits and exercise may also help make sleep better,” Dr. Qi says. A diet rich in fish and vegetables may promote better sleep, while irregular eating patterns and sugary foods are related to poor sleep.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend taking medications that may improve sleep. If that’s the case, be sure to discuss all the medications you take.

Heart Tip #8: Move a Little Every Day

You knew this was coming. But here’s the thing: You don’t need to sign up for a boot camp to get the benefits. Even committing to a goal as simple as “I’ll sit less and move more” can help your heart.

Researchers found that when people wore a fitness tracker and tried to move more, their average sedentary time (a.k.a. inactive time) dipped by seven minutes a day, and their systolic blood pressure (that’s the top number of your blood pressure) fell 10 points over 20 weeks.

“Regular moderate-intensity exercise has tremendous beneficial effects,” says Thomas Buford, Ph.D., director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Center for Exercise Medicine. But don’t overlook the value of simply spending less time sitting and increasing your low-intensity physical activity, he adds.

To start, find an activity you really enjoy, such as walking, gardening, or swimming. Then try to replace some of your TV or reading time with that activity.

Need a little help getting inspired? SilverSneakers members can take live online classes led by instructors trained in senior fitness with SilverSneakers LIVE.

Heart Tip #9: Get to Know Resistance Training

It might not make your heart pump the way cardio does, but resistance training can help you mount a stronger fight against heart disease. People who did resistance exercise once, twice, or three times a week for an hour or less had a 40 percent to 70 percent reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

Resistance exercise can lower blood pressure and ease chronic inflammation while reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes, says Bong Kil Song, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate in kinesiology at Iowa State University. Aim for muscle-strengthening activities that include all major muscle groups, including your legs, hips, chest, back, abdomen, shoulders, and arms.

“Examples of muscle-strengthening activities include resistance band exercises, lifting weights, using weights for resistance, climbing stairs, doing home chores, and carrying heavy loads,” he says. Increase your intensity and number of repetitions gradually over time.

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