7 Do’s & Don’ts for Keeping Your Heart Healthy

7 Do’s & Don’ts for Keeping Your Heart Healthy

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Heart health is important. Like, really important. A long life requires treating your ticker right! But don't worry, your heart is a tough organ—as tough as you are. Even if you've suffered cardiovascular health related issues in the past, there are many, many things you can do to achieve and maintain heart health.

To find out what to do to live heart-smart (as well as how to not end up looking heart-foolish) we sat down with Life Extension Senior Wellness Specialist Dr. April Parks-McDuffie, an expert in Sport and Health Science with a focus in cardiology. She's here to show us 7 ways to live a heart-healthy lifestyle.

DON’T: Smoke. Smoking is bad for your heart

Woman quitting smoking for her heart

When we asked Dr. Parks to name one thing that would improve your heart health, her answer was immediate: "Stop smoking."

If you're a smoker, odds are you've been hearing this one for a while. It might be annoying, but there's no better one-step way to improve your heart health than to quit smoking. Dr. Parks acknowledges that quitting is way, way easier said than done. But few people know exactly why quitting is good for your heart: it has to do with what smoking does to your vascular system. Smoking can cause your blood vessels to narrow and thicken. It also reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood, which means, your heart has to work that much harder to get enough to your body and brain.

"That puts more pressure on your arteries and veins … and increases your chances of a clot," Dr. Parks explained. "Oh, and when I say 'pressure,' I mean blood pressure…the same one your doctor is always going on about."

Ok, so the after-dinner cigarette is a thing of the past. But what about dinner itself? Any tips there?

DO: Eat plenty of heart-healthy fruits, veggies & legumes

A plate full of heart healthy food

Once again, Dr. Parks had a quick, definitive answer: "Yes. Eat a heart-healthy diet."

There's no denying it: we are living in the golden age of cuisine. The multimedia world has expanded our palates and given our tastebuds oh-so-many to-do delicacies that we would never even know existed without our favorite food channels or cooking shows.

But as Dr. Parks points out, there's something that the gastropub down the street or your favorite online chef isn't going to tell you: when it comes to your heart, diet matters. "The good news is, there are plenty of delicious ways to eat right and still be cardiovascular-health conscious," she added.

Let her count the ways:

  • Vegetables and fruits—Or as most of us know them, plants! Eat them daily. Leafy greens like spinach are packed with heart-healthy vitamin k and other good stuff, like antioxidants and fiber. Fruits and veggies deliver flavonoids, blood pressure-friendly potassium and magnesium and vitamin C.
  • Beans and legumes—This is mostly because of the fiber. But legumes are also high in protein and minerals but lack the saturated fat you'd find in meat-based protein sources. In fact, that's a big factor: "You want the leanest, healthiest source of dietary protein you can find," Dr. Parks advised.
  • Lean protein—Red meat like lamb and beef, dark meat like chicken thighs, and pork all package their protein with high levels of saturated fat. If you're looking for an animal source of lean protein, think fish. Haddock, pollock and halibut are very, very low-fat sources of protein. But even the oily fish like tuna and salmon are good for your heart—because of the type of fat they contain. Check out these awesome salmon salad recipes.
  • Polyunsaturated fats in oily fish are considered "healthy fats". They are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which have been shown to improve heart health and help maintain already healthy triglyceride levels.
  • Olive oil is a source of monounsaturated fat, which is the other "healthy fat." Olive oil also contains compounds called polyphenols that help maintain your vascular endothelium—the delicate inner lining of your blood vessels that plays a huge role in blood pressure and overall cardiovascular health.

DO: Get regular cardiovascular or aerobic exercise

Running on a treadmill as a heart friendly exercise

Thank you, Doctor! Now what about exercise? What is the best exercise for your heart?

Dr. Parks quipped, "It's called 'cardio' for a reason. Cardiovascular exercise is any exercise that helps strengthen your cardiovascular system," she explained. Cardio is the rhythmic or repetitive motion of large muscle groups—think running, walking, biking, swimming or any number of in-place machines like treadmills or ellipticals.

Effective cardiovascular exercise increases oxygen circulation requirements in your muscles. That's why the term cardiovascular exercise and aerobic exercise (exercise that requires more oxygen circulation) are used pretty much interchangeably. So what happens during aerobic exercise?

You will…

  1. Breathe faster. Fast, deep breaths maximize the amount of new oxygen in your blood.
  2. Increase your heartrate. With every beat, your heart circulates more oxygen rich blood to your muscles.
  3. Widen your capillaries. Small blood vessels expand to rid muscles of carbon dioxide and lactic acid.

Bonus: during cardio, your body releases endorphins—natural compounds that make you feel good.

And according to Dr. Parks, people who get regular cardio will be feeling those happy endorphins for longer than most. "People who jog, bike or swim are usually in better health than your standard couch-potato," she said. "That's because cardio/aerobic exercise positively affects a wide variety of health factors."

Those who exercise regularly and live a more active life are more likely to be able to maintain healthy blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol as well as weight, Dr. Parks added. All of these things have a direct impact on your heart. So it's important to develop an exercise plan to maintain a healthy heart.

DON’T: Forget to get regular blood tests for risk factors

Doctor monitoring older woman's blood pressure

But remember there's more to heart health than what meets the eye. "You'll still need to keep tabs on the unseen factors that affect your heart, such as glucose (blood sugar), cholesterol and blood pressure," Dr. Parks advised.

Also, keep an eye on cardiovascular inflammationwith a C-reactive protein test.

DO: Make sure you’re getting enough CoQ10

Woman taking coQ10

OK, we've covered bad habits, diet & exercise. Are there any nutrients that promote heart health?

"My top pick is CoQ10," Dr. Parks said. "This coenzyme antioxidant is produced naturally inside your body. Your cells use CoQ10 to help them produce cellular energy: it helps the mitochondria within your cells turn macronutrients from the foods you eat into ATP, which is the fuel currency your cells use to operate."

CoQ10 levels decrease as we age, however—which has an impact on the efficiency of vital organs with high cellular energy requirements. Like…say, your heart. But its benefits include other important organs, Dr. Parks pointed out. "CoQ10 is also important to your brain and kidneys. Regular CoQ10 is hard to absorb. So I usually suggest intake of high-quality CoQ10," she explained.

DO: Get enough vitamin K—but not from meat, cheese & dairy sources

A block of high fat cheese which is bad for your heart

CoQ10 isn't the only nutrient to seek out, if you're prioritizing a healthy heart. After that, "keep an eye on vitamin K," Dr. Parks advised. "Vitamin K is crucial for calcium balance (how much calcium is in your arteries as opposed to your bones) and it is an important part of cardiovascular health."

But getting enough vitamin K from your diet is difficult—or, ill-advised. Vitamin K1 is found in leafy green vegetables, which many of us don't get enough of in our diets. Meanwhile, vitamin K2 is found in stuff like eggs, meat and cheese. "While K2 is great for your arteries, the cholesterol in these particular food groups is not," Dr. Parks explained. "Vitamin K2 through other sources is a much better idea."

DO: Make sure you’re getting enough niacin and pomegranate

Woman holding a heart healthy pomegranate scliced in half

While you're making a list of heart-healthy nutrients, Dr. Parks has a few things to add. "I'd also suggest niacin and pomegranate," she said. "Niacin, or vitamin B3, has been studied for its ability to help maintain healthy cholesterol levels since the 1950's. It's also essential for the healthy metabolism of sugar, fat and alcohol."

Now, some people shy away from niacin because taking it can cause temporary flushing and itching. But did you know that there's a kind of niacin that doesn't cause the flush? This way you get the heart health support of vitamin B3, without the temporary discomfort, Dr. Parks advised.

But what about pomegranate? Why is this messy fruit so good for heart health? "Pomegranate is packed with polyphenols. These compounds support endothelial health, which helps maintain already-healthy blood pressure," she explained. They also inhibit oxidative stress, which is good for your cardiovascular system for a wide variety of reasons.

Most people get those pomegranate polyphenols from pomegranate juice. That's great, as far as it goes—but the truth is that there are healthy compounds in pomegranate flowers as well as pomegranate seed oil that you won't get from juice that's made from the fruit alone.

"A full-spectrum extract that gives you everything a pomegranate has to offer (punicalagins, punicic acid, etc.) is a more well-rounded solution…and it has the added benefit of being completely devoid of sugar and calories," Dr. Parks said. And since maintaining a healthy weight goes hand in hand with heart health, avoiding those extra calories is quite a plus!

 

Dr. April Parks- McDuffie, Exercise Physiologist and a Senior Wellness Specialist

Dr. April Parks- McDuffie

MD, MS

Dr. April Parks- McDuffie is an Exercise Physiologist and a Senior Wellness Specialist at Life Extension. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences at Savannah State University and her Master of Science in Exercise Physiology at Life University before attending Windsor University School of Medicine.

 

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