February is American Heart Month, a time to focus on the well-being of your cardiovascular system. While most of the time, we think about heart health as something to worry about “when we’re older,” the truth is heart health is something that happens over time.
The healthy habits you maintain for your heart, lungs and blood vessels now can continue to benefit you later on in life. Read on for a list of heart-healthy habits at any age, including a couple that might surprise you!
1. Be social and stay connected.
We’re starting off with what is often the most surprising habit for heart health. Loneliness has actually been found to be more harmful for the heart than a poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking or a low mood, according to research from Tulane University. Don’t underestimate the importance of social connections, especially as you age. Staying in touch with family, friends, colleagues and your community is good for the mind, body and spirit.
If you don’t live close to your favorite people, use technology to your advantage. Video chat, text, call or even use the simulcast feature on your device to watch a film or show at the same time. If you’d like to be more social, seek out classes or groups in your community that share similar interests. It could be a prayer or meditation group, a fitness or knitting class, a parenting meet-up or anything else that interests you.
2. Know your numbers.
Regular check-ups with a health-care professional can help you stay on top of your health. Cholesterol, resting heart rate, blood pressure and the metrics from bloodwork can change over time. Having check-ups each year can help you and your health-care provider spot trends.
In between, if you’re a person who likes to see health data, check out the health app on your phone or smart watch. These days, they can track everything from heart rate variability, resting heart rate, respiratory rate, risk for falls, etc. All of those numbers can also offer valuable information for you and your provider.
3. Eat a heart-healthy diet.
What you choose to put on your plate – and what you choose to leave off – is a personal choice. People choose certain eating patterns for reasons ranging from health to spiritual beliefs. But when it comes to heart health, research shows that certain diets offer more benefits.
The Mediterranean Diet comes out on top for the cardiovascular system. It’s more of a lifestyle that a diet, and includes some meat and fish, and lots of vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, nuts, whole grains and olive oil. This diet is one of the healthiest ways to eat, because it’s mostly whole, unprocessed foods.
Your heart – and the rest of your body – can benefit from what this diet leaves out, too. Convenience and processed foods are off-limits due to the added sugars, salts and fillers.
4. Maintain a healthy body weight.
Your body is your business, and health-care professionals are starting to understand that people can be healthy at any size. However, maintaining a healthy body weight can support heart health.
5. Move your body daily.
The best exercise is the kind you’ll stick with – consistency is key, as with any habit. But do try to move your body daily when you’re able. Walking is one of the best, cheapest and most accessible workouts, but you can do anything that gets your heart pumping. That could be running in the park with your dog, dancing in the living room with your kids or riding your bike to and from work.
The CDC recommends US adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week (meaning you can still carry on a conversation while working out). Short workouts can add up, so feel free to divide your physical activity into more manageable chunks of time.
In addition to cardiovascular workouts, focus on strengthening muscles two days a week. Lifting weights, bodyweight exercises, yoga and Pilates all count – and they help maintain muscle and bone health, which is especially important as we age.
6. Stay hydrated.
What does water have to do with your heart? Plenty! Maintaining proper hydration levels ensures your body has enough water to maintain its normal processes – including maintaining healthy blood pressure within normal ranges.
In addition, staying hydrated makes it easier to maintain those other heart-healthy habits, like working out, managing hunger to maintain a healthy weight and maintaining muscle health.
7. Manage everyday stress.
While daily stress is part of the human experience, keeping yours in check is something your heart will appreciate as much as your mood does. Not only is it linked to habits that might not be so great for you (like smoking, drinking alcohol, eating junk food or skipping workouts), but it also does have a physical impact.
Integrate stress-relieving habits into your day. It could be anything from yoga and meditation to snuggling with a pet or journaling. Remember what the flight attendants tell you on every flight: Put your own oxygen mask on first, then help others. In other words: Prioritize your own self-care to be a better caregiver for those around you.
8. Change up your habits as you age.
Your “real” age is between you and the DMV. You get to decide how old you feel. As the years pass, it’s OK (and often encouraged) to adjust your habits. You might swap running for power walking, a keto diet for a Mediterranean one or take up intermittent fasting. You can decide to integrate certain supplements into your routine, abstain from alcohol or sugar – or step things up a notch in the weight room.
9. Stop smoking.
Quitting smoking is one of the best ways you can show your heart some love (and that includes vaping and smokeless tobacco, too). The benefits start your first smoke-free day and continue building for years!
10. Fill in the gaps.
You’ve heard us talk about the fiber gap more than a few times. That’s because so many people simply don’t get enough of this essential nutrient. In addition to helping satisfy hunger, support regularity and helping probiotics, consuming adequate amounts of fiber can also support heart health!