20 Easy Ways To Help Your Heart

Keeping your ticker in tip-top shape is a no-brainer—just follow these simple science-backed strategies.

February 15, 2017
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When it comes to ensuring a long, healthy life, your heart is, well, the heart of the operation. But, despite holding the key to health and longevity, your ticker isn't as high-maintenance as you may think.

Related: 7 Lifestyle Habits That'll Lower Your Risk Of Heart Disease

You can effectively ward off heart disease, prevent strokes, reduce your blood pressure, and lower your cholesterol by implementing a few easy strategies in your everyday life. Here, a few tricks to get you started.

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Eat calcium-rich foods

You might think you're doing your body good by taking calcium supplements every day, but you could actually be putting your heart in harm's way. A New Zealand study found that older women who took calcium supplements were at greater risk for cardiovascular disease and heart attacks. Instead, turn to natural sources like low-fat dairy and greens (think kale, broccoli rabe, spinach) to get your daily calcium fix. 

Need another way to help your heart? Trim sodium from your diet and embrace salt-free cooking

Related: 13 Surprising Sources Of Calcium

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Fill up on antioxidants

According to a 2007 Swedish study, women who consumed the highest concentration of antioxidants had a 17% lower risk of stroke compared with women who had the lowest concentration. The study participants got most of their antioxidants from fruits and vegetables, but whole grains, tea, and chocolate also played a role. To load your diet with inflammation fighters, try eating more berries, artichokes, beans, lentils, apples, and cocoa—a few foods particularly high in antioxidants.

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Adopt a Mediterranean-style diet

Lower your risk of heart disease by eating like they do in southern Italy and Greece. A 2011 study from Johns Hopkins University showed that a diet that emphasized healthy fats, fruits, and veggies prevented heart disease in individuals who were at risk for cardiovascular disorders, even if they didn't lose weight. To get started, swap out carbohydrates from white bread and pasta with heart-healthy fats from olive oil, nuts, and avocados, and don't forget to incorporate plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Related: 4 Ways To Eat A More Mediterranean Diet

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Cook with herbs and spices

Using herbs and spices not only reduces your need for as much salt—which can raise your blood pressure—but also delivers other health-enhancing qualities. On a per-gram basis many herbs can have more antioxidant activity than many fruits and vegetables—in fact, oregano has four times more of the antioxidant benefits from eating blueberries. Fresh dill contains the antioxidant quercetin, which has been linked to reducing blood pressure, and rosemary, thyme, and peppermint also show promising antioxidant activity.

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Load up on potassium

While a high-sodium diet can put your heart's health at risk, getting enough potassium can help to counteract some of these negative effects, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. To strike a healthy balance, cut down on salty and processed foods and load up on foods high in potassium, such as broccoli, potatoes, tomatoes, peas, squash, apricots, bananas, and citrus fruits.

Here's another way to help your heart: Cut down on sugar. Find out how to trim the sweet stuff from your diet without even realizing it.

Related: 5 Foods That Help Replenish Electrolytes

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Take your blood pressure medication at night

A 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology followed about 660 individuals taking blood pressure medication over the course of 5 years and found that patients who took at least one of their medications at bedtime had a lower risk for cardiovascular death, heart failure, or stroke than patients who took their dose upon waking. The patients who medicated at bedtime also had better control of their blood pressure throughout the day. However, before switching your routine, be sure to speak to your physician.

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Treat high blood pressure

Treating high blood pressure can tack on years to a person's life, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers from UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, NJ, found that for every month a person with hypertension takes medication to lower his or her blood pressure, that person will live about 1 extra day. If you have untreated high blood pressure—or don't know your blood pressure at all—schedule an appointment to have it checked.

Related: 10 Fun Ways To Show Your Heart Some TLC

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Go to the dentist

A visit to the dentist can make your pearly whites shine—and keep your ticker on track, as well. In a recent Taiwanese study people who had their teeth cleaned at least twice a year for 2 years had a 24% lower risk of heart attack and a 13% lower risk of stroke compared with people who never went to the dentist. Professional cleaning appears to reduce inflammation-causing bacterial growth, which can lead to dangerous inflammation, say the study authors.

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Stay active

If you're on the heavy side, the key to avoiding heart disease may be to boost your fitness level with exercise. In a 2011 study published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, scientists measured cardiovascular fitness levels of overweight men for several years; those who increased their exercise levels were less likely to die of heart disease (or any cause)--whether or not they lost weight during the study. Another study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reported that men who performed vigorous exercise at least 3 hours a week reduced their risk of heart attack by 22%.

Related: Easy 15-Minute Workouts For A Longer Life

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Run a mile—and time yourself!

It's time to hit the track with a stopwatch. Two separate studies in 2011 indicate that mile times may predict our risk of heart disease. While a mile time cannot yet be used as a true benchmark of disease risk, researchers estimated that middle-aged folks who can run a mile in 8 (men) or 9 (women) minutes had a 20% lower lifetime risk of heart problems than those who ran slower than 10- (men) or 12-minute (women) miles. Find out how to start running and you'll soon be on the race track.

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Chow down on walnuts

For a quick antioxidant-rich add-on, look no further than walnuts. They contain higher quality and more potent antioxidants than any other nut, outperforming peanuts, almonds, pecans, and pistachios, according to research presented at a 2011 meeting of the American Chemical Society. Because nuts are high in calories, keep it to just a handful: Study authors say it takes only about seven walnuts a day to reap their heart-health benefits.

Related: 6 Anti-Inflammatory Powerhouse Foods

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Feast on fish

Ladies, you may want to eat salmon for dinner tonight. Consuming fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids could reduce your risk of developing heart disease, according to a Danish study published in the journal Hypertension. The researchers found that women of childbearing age who never ate fish had 90% more cardiovascular problems than those who ate seafood weekly. Even eating fish only a few times a month had benefits.

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Sprinkle flaxseed on your cereal

Flaxseed may be small, but each one packs a punch. The little guys are one of the best sources for alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an essential omega-3 fatty acid that may reduce blood triglycerides and blood pressure and protect against blood clots and stroke. Buy flaxseed whole (they'll last longer that way) and grind them using a coffee grinder or blender to add to cereals, soups, salads, or smoothies.

Related: 12 Foods That Boost Your Mood

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Eat chocolate

Feel free to indulge in the sweet treat. Eating chocolate on a regular basis may reduce a person's risk of heart disease by one-third, according to a 2011 review published in the British Medical Journal. Although the analysis could not determine which type or how much chocolate is the most beneficial, experts suggest choosing the dark variety (at least 60% cocoa)—which is highest in antioxidants—and eating it in moderation.

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Start your day with oatmeal

It's never too early to show your heart some love. By eating 1 1/2 cups of steel-cut oatmeal at breakfast, you'll start your day with 6 g of soluble fiber, which lowers the absorption of cholesterol in your blood stream and can reduce your LDL "bad" cholesterol. Toss some fruit into your bowl, like apple, pear, or banana slices, and you'll add up to 4 g fiber.

Related: 10 Healthy New Ways To Eat Oatmeal

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Snack on nuts

The next time your stomach rumbles, grab a handful of nuts. A serving a day can increase your body's serotonin, which can help you feel less hungry and happier, according to a 2011 Spanish study. The researchers reported a link between eating nuts and higher serotonin levels in patients with metabolic syndrome, a precursor to diabetes and heart disease.

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Eat potatoes

The starchy root vegetable has a bad rap among dieters, but a 2011 study from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania gives tater lovers something to celebrate: When participants added purple potatoes to their daily diets for a month, they lowered their blood pressure by 3 to 4%, without packing on weight or boosting their cholesterol. Researchers say that the positive effect likely comes from the high antioxidant concentration in spuds.

Related: How To Cook The Healthiest Potatoes

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Look for foods fortified with plant sterols or stanols

The next time you're in the grocery store, keep an eye out for foods that have been fortified with sterols or stanols. These natural plant substances can help block the body from absorbing cholesterol. Adding fortified margarine, orange juice, or yogurt to your diet may help you reduce LDL "bad" cholesterol by more than 10%, without affecting your HDL "good" cholesterol. For best results, you need at least 2 g —about two 8-ounce servings of plant sterol-fortified orange juice. These foods shouldn't stand in for medication, however, so talk to your doctor if you're already being treated for high cholesterol.

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Switch to a better cooking oil

What you cook your foods in matters. The American Heart Association recommends using a liquid vegetable oil or nonfat cooking spray whenever possible, and urges Americans to choose oils that are lowest in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol. Best choices are canola, corn, olive, safflower, sesame, soybean, and sunflower oil. Olive oil is particularly good because it contains a mix of antioxidants that can lower your "bad" cholesterol without lowering your "good" cholesterol. 

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Measure your waist

You may not have the device to check your blood pressure or cholesterol at home, but chances are you have a tape measure, and, for men, the circumference of your gut can be a good indication of whether you're at risk of disease. Research has shown that as a man's abdominal fat increases, so does his risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers. A waistline of 40 inches or more puts the average male in the "disease-risk zone," according the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For an accurate number, measure over bare skin, just above the belly button at the narrowest part of your torso.

The article 20 Easy Ways to Help Your Heart originally appeared on Rodale Wellness.

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