Well Prevention

How to Keep Your Heart Healthy Without Overthinking It

February 7, 2018
Woman in front of painted heart
© Michela Ravasio / Stocksy United

Heart health recommendations seem to change unpredictably. For years, eggs were seen as a dietary sin due to their cholesterol content until, well, that changed.

Just recently, the American Heart Association recommended that treatment for high blood pressure start at a blood pressure reading of 130/80 instead of 140/90 as previously advocated. But the American College of Physicians doesn’t agree with the AHA’s new blood pressure guidelines (sigh).

So what heart health recommendations should you follow when there is disagreement even among professionals?

Follow these simple heart health strategies that UW Medicine cardiologists suggest.

Make your own food

Studies have shown that if you prepare your food from scratch, you are more likely to eat healthily. If you use what’s in season and cook different foods throughout the year, you get fresh herbs, antioxidants and a good variety, says April Stempien-Otero, M.D., a cardiologist at UW Medicine Regional Heart Center Cardiology Clinic.

When you prepare your meals, follow a Mediterranean-ish diet that focuses on fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains and olive oil and avoids a lot of animal fat. This type of diet is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, says Gary Weeks, M.D., a cardiologist at Summit Cardiology at Northwest Hospital & Medical Center and Cardiology Clinic at Edmonds.

Cooking at home also makes it easier to avoid food industry processing methods that have been adopted without a clear understanding of their long-term effects.

“Think about what happened with margarine. It’s made by bubbling hydrogen through oil. That process is not something that occurs in nature or that had ever been done in the history of mankind. So it’s not surprising that 20 years later, we discover it’s probably not a good idea after all,” says Stempien-Otero.

There’s another good reason why we should avoid processed foods. Processing may add salt, trans fats and sugars to otherwise healthy foods, says Weeks.

Avoid simple carbohydrates

Simple carbs may be some of the carbs you like best: potatoes, white rice, white breads and sugars. But there’s clear evidence that we should try to avoid them.

Avoiding simple carbohydrates is not only associated with better weight control but with a reduced risk of diabetes, says Weeks. Replace the simple carbs with whole grains, legumes fresh fruits and vegetables.  

Get some kind of exercise every day

Exercise isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. You don’t have to get your heart rate up to 140 beats per minute for 30 minutes a day, or even step in the gym, to get exercise.

Even a brisk two-mile walk around the neighborhood every day will do more for you than an occasional 30 minutes at the gym, says Stempien-Otero. She suggests getting exercise that is easy to incorporate into your existing lifestyle.

“Let’s say you are at your kid’s soccer game. Don’t just stand and watch. Walk or exercise while they practice. It reduces your stress level, so you won’t be stressed out that they missed the ball—again. And it models that we are all out here to have fun and make our bodies healthy,” says Stempien-Otero.

Actively reduce your stress

Exercising regularly does reduce stress and improve your sense of well-being and vitality. And since stress has an adverse effect on the heart, it’s important to counteract it, says Weeks.

He recommends doing exercise that you enjoy—whether that’s a brisk walk, bicycling or taekwondo. Exercise for 20 to 30 minutes for four days per week.

When anxiety is an issue, other forms of stress reduction such as breathing exercises, meditation, yoga and mindfulness can all help.

“It is important to understand our stressors and find ways to lower the stress related to them,” says Weeks.

Make time for sleep

Studies show that poor quality sleep is associated with increased blood pressure and increased cardiovascular risk. Trouble sleeping also contributes to the development of diabetes, independent of weight gain.

“The recommendation is to get eight hours of sleep a night, though I don’t think that’s always possible,” says Weeks.

Napping can serve as a way to supplement your sleep on a temporary basis.

Poor quality sleep can have many different causes. Caffeine and alcohol are known to disrupt sleep patterns. Being overweight also causes sleep apnea, which affects the quality of sleep.

Getting adequate sleep is important in terms of overall health. The most important thing that people can do when it comes to sleep is allow enough time for it, says Weeks.

Don't smoke or vape

Most people know by now that tobacco use increases cardiac risk and needs to be avoided.

“We don’t know the full story on the safety of vaping so the best long-term strategy is to abstain from nicotine use,” says Weeks.

Know your numbers

High blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes don’t always have obvious symptoms, yet these conditions increase your chances of getting heart disease. That’s why it’s important to get your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels checked.

Get blood work done once every five years in your 20s and even more often as you age. If someone has a complete bill of health at the age of 30, then checking every two to three years is appropriate, says Weeks.

Anyone who has an abnormality of cholesterol, blood sugar or blood pressure in their 30s or 40s should be followed on a yearly basis. And once you hit your 50s, you should get your numbers checked yearly.

If your blood cholesterol, blood sugar or blood pressure readings indicate that you are at risk, your physician will recommend what steps to take next. This could include making changes in your diet and exercise habits or more closely monitoring health indicators such as your blood pressure or blood sugar.

Don't make excuses

It’s not enough to know your numbers.

“Don’t assume that it’s because you were nervous about being at the doctor’s office that your blood pressure was high. Or that it’s because you ate a lot of cookies over Christmas break that your blood cholesterol is up," says Stempien-Otero. "This kind of rationalizing is understandable, but needs to be overcome. You need to take the next step and deal with the issue at hand."

Regular follow-up with a healthcare provider is important to ensure good long-term success for anyone, and especially those with a cholesterol, blood sugar or blood pressure issue. They will help you to treat, manage and control your condition.

“By teaming with a professional, you ensure that what you’re doing actually helps,” says Weeks.