If you ask your doctor for tips on how to lower your risk for heart disease, they’ll probably give you the standard guidelines – stay active, watch your weight, keep your blood pressure under control and watch your cholesterol. Decent advice, but there are other things you can do that could lower your risk for dying prematurely of a heart attack, things your doctor might not tell you or even be aware of, but these tips are supported by preliminary research. Taking advantage of these lesser-known heart-healthy habits, in combination with the standard advice your physician gives you, may help you further reduce your risk for heart disease.
Avoiding Heart Disease Tip #1 – Embrace High-Intensity Exercise
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says you should do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise like brisk walking each week to reduce your risk for heart. Following these guidelines will certainly lower your risk for heart disease, but adding more vigor to a workout may offer even greater cardioprotective benefits. A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology reached this conclusion:
“If the total energy expenditure of exercise is held constant, exercise performed at a vigorous intensity appears to convey greater cardioprotective benefits than exercise of moderate intensity.”
The take-home message? Add a few high-intensity interval training sessions to your fitness routine get your heart in ship shape. Any movement is good, but vigorous movement is even better.
Tip #2 – Eat More Magnesium-Rich Foods
Magnesium is a mineral involved in over 300 reactions in the human body, including ones important for a healthy heart. Not to mention magnesium helps relax blood vessels, which is critical for blood pressure control. Can it lower the risk of heart disease too? A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition involving over 300,000 men and women found a 22% lower risk of heart disease with each 200-milligram daily increase in magnesium intake. Eating a magnesium-rich diet also has metabolic benefits by helping to improve insulin sensitivity and blood glucose control. Research also shows magnesium is important for preventing irregular heart rhythms and sudden death. Whole grains, nuts, seeds, and spinach are among the best sources of magnesium. Eat up!
Tip #3 – Watch Your Omega-6 to Omega-3 Ratio
Growing evidence suggests that the TYPES of fat you eat play a role in heart disease development. In this case, we’re not talking about saturated fats, but polyunsaturated fats, the type doctors have recommended for years to lower the risk of heart disease – but not all polyunsaturated fats are the same. Many of the processed cooking oils you buy at the supermarket, including soybean oil and corn oil, are high in omega-6 fatty acids. The standard western diet, due to an abundance of processed foods is already too high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s.
Why is watching your ratio key? Consuming a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3s is linked with inflammation and, like other diseases, heart disease is linked, according to some research, with inflammation and oxidation of LDL-cholesterol. If you eat a standard western diet, your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is probably around 20:1, when it should be no higher than 2:1 or even 1:1. The best way to improve your ratio is to remove processed foods from your diet and avoid refined cooking oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is a good choice for lower temperature cooking. To improve your ratio, add more omega-3 rich fatty fish and plant-based omega-3s from sources like flaxseed to your diet.
Tip #4 – Say No to Sugar
At one time, experts believed saturated fat was the primary dietary promoter of heart disease, now attention is turning to sugar. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in April of 2014 showed a diet high in added sugar was linked with a greater risk for mortality due to heart disease. What’s the greatest source of sugar in the American diet? Sugar-sweetened beverages. Studies looking at soft drink consumption and heart disease show BOTH sugar-sweetened soft drinks AND diet soft drinks are linked with heart disease.
Why might there be an association between indulging in soft drinks and heart disease? For one, sipping sugar-sweetened drinks increases the risk of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, a condition strongly associated with heart disease. Considering, soft drinks have no nutritional value and are loaded with phosphates, an additive that’s also bad for your heart, sipping soft drinks is a high-risk way to stay hydrated.
Tip #5 – Watch Your Waistline
Here’s a surprising fact. The size of your waistline is a better indicator of your cardiovascular risk than your body mass index or BMI. Still, more emphasis is placed on body weight and BMI than waist size. A large waist size is a marker for abdominal obesity and excess visceral fat, the type that leads to health problems like metabolic syndrome and heart disease.
The Nurse’s Health Study, a research study involving 44,000 women showed women with a waist size greater than 35 inches had twice the risk of dying of heart disease relative to those with a waist size less than 28 inches. Even if you have a normal BMI, if you carry most of your fat around the midline, your risk for heart disease is higher. Also, it’s possible to be of normal weight and still have abdominal obesity. Fortunately, exercise, especially high-intensity workouts, burns belly fat and lowers your risk for metabolic problems.
The Bottom Line
Take your doctor’s advice, but take it a step further and do these five things to give yourself the greatest protection against heart disease and heart attacks. Lifestyle really does count when it comes to the health of your heart.
Am J Cardiol. 2006 Jan 1;97(1):141-7. Epub 2005 Nov 16.
Life Extension Magazine. “Meta-analysis finds magnesium protective against heart disease risk”
University of Maryland Medical Center. “Magnesium”
Health Status. “Diet Or Regular – Soft Drinks May Be Linked To Heart Disease”
Medical News Today. “Soft Drinks Linked To Heart Disease Via Metabolic Syndrome”
Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2012 Jan; 109(4): 49-55. Published online 2012 Jan 27. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2012.0049
Harvard Health Publications. “Eating too much added sugar increases the risk of dying with heart disease”
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