Every year, over 600,000 people die of heart disease – that makes it the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States. Though there is certainly a genetic component to cardiovascular disease, many risk factors are completely within your control. In fact, you are probably making some simple mistakes that, if you continue to make them, could have serious consequences down the line.
If you want to take control of your heart health now to prevent major heart problems later in life, you need to step back and take a look at your cardiovascular health and the habits you have which could be negatively impacting it. Keep reading to learn about the top 5 heart health mistakes you should stop making now to ensure a brighter and healthier future for you and your heart.
How Late is Too Late?
It is never too early to start making healthier choices in your life. Striving for a more balanced diet and engaging in regular exercise are two of the best things you can do for your health, both now and for the future. Simple things like this can add up and, over time, they will help your body run at its optimal level which will ensure that all of your organs and systems work more efficiently. So, while making a healthy choice is a good thing for sure, it is important that you continue to make those healthy choices each and every day if you want the results to last.
So, it’s a good idea to start thinking about your health sooner rather than later, but how late is too late? According to Deepak Bhatt, MD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the executive director of interventional cardiovascular programs at Brigham Women’s Hospital Heart & Vascular Center, several risk factors for heart disease start to go up in a person’s 40s. Though risk factors like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity are always dangerous, these things become major drivers for heart problems in middle age.
What does that mean? It means that while it is best to adopt healthy habits early on to preserve your cardiovascular health for the long-term, it becomes even more important to make healthy changes once you hit 40 if you haven’t done so already. But what kind of mistakes are the most damaging to your heart and what can you do to fix them? Keep reading to find out.
Mistake #1: Carrying Around Too Much Weight
As you get older it is natural for your metabolism to slow down and that makes you prone to weight gain. If you are already overweight or obese, this could be all the more dangerous for your heart and your health. The first step in correcting this mistake is to make yourself aware of how bad the problem really is. Step on the scale and ask yourself just how much weight you’ve gained over the past few months, the past year, or even the past decade. If your weight has been steadily climbing, you could have some other health problems you need to address – talk to your doctor about doing a cardiovascular fitness test to see what kind of shape your heart is really in.
Eating a salad once in a while or going for a walk one day a week are good choices to make, but they won’t make much difference for your bodyweight or your heart health until they become frequent habits. Unfortunately, losing weight over the age of 40 can be tricky for many people but there are a few simple rules you can follow to make a change:
- Aim for slow and steady weight loss – The goal is to lose the weight and keep it off, so aim for a 1- to 2-pound loss per week at most to ensure that your body adjusts properly so you keep the weight off after you lose it.
- Make veggies the focus of your meals – Sure, you should include complex carbohydrates in your diet but try to fill up on veggies and lean proteins to limit your calorie intake and maximize your nutrient intake.
- Eat smaller portions – Not only should you make an effort to eat healthier meals in general but watch your portion sizes as well. You can gain weight just as easily from eating too much chicken as you can too much pizza.
- Don’t skip meals – Your metabolism is already struggling, so why mess with it by skipping meals? You’re better off drinking a smoothie or eating a small meal to control calorie intake than you are skipping the meal entirely.
- Be mindful of treats – There’s nothing wrong with the occasional indulgence, but it’s probably not a good idea to go eating a bowl of ice cream after dinner every day.
In addition to making these simple changes, you should make an effort to move more as well. You don’t necessarily have to train for the marathon but going for a 30-minute walk once or twice a day will make a big difference for your cardiovascular health.
Mistake #2: Failing to Nurture Relationships
When you work a long day, it’s tempting to just go home and veg out in front of the television. While this is fine once in a while, don’t let your relationships fall by the wayside. You may not realize it, but nurturing social relationships is important for your heart health. According to a study conducted in 2016, social isolation and loneliness can increase your risk for coronary heart disease just as much as smoking. In fact, a lack of social relationships was correlated with an increase in a person’s risk for heart disease by nearly 30%.
Forcing yourself to go out with friends every night of the week may not be the healthiest choice, but you should take the steps necessary to preserve and grow your friendships. Men in particular are at-risk for letting relationships slide in their 40s, so you might need to make a concerted effort to keep in touch. Try joining a recreational sport league, take up a new hobby, or just schedule a weekly dinner out with friends. You don’t have to do anything crazy, just keep in touch!
Mistake #3: Going Too Hard at the Gym (or Not at All)
The benefits of physical exercise for your heart health are undeniable, but there is such a thing as working out too hard. While it is recommended that you get 30 minutes of exercise per day, if all of that exercise is high-intensity, it could be damaging to your heart once you reach middle age and older. If you choose to do high-intensity exercise like running, make sure you warm up your body properly and try to do something low-intensity in between your more intense workouts. If you are new to exercise, it is especially important that you start slow and build your fitness over time.
While hitting the gym too hard is not good for your heart, neither is avoiding it entirely. You don’t have to spend an hour on the treadmill every day or train for a triathlon, but you should be making a daily effort to get moving. Go for a walk after work every evening or play a round of tennis with a friend on the weekend. Whatever kind of exercise you enjoy, make that your focus and the heart health benefits will be a bonus.
Mistake #4: Not Managing Your Stress
Stress seems unavoidable in this day and age. Many people who suffer from chronic stress don’t even realize it because it has become the norm for them. What you may not know, however, is that chronic stress can wreak havoc on your body, including your heart. When you are faced with some kind of threat, your body has a built-in “fight or flight” response that revs up your heartrate and breathing and focuses your mind – these metabolic changes give you the energy and focus to tackle the threat head-on or to successfully escape it. When the threat dissipates, your body goes back to normal.
Unfortunately, the body has a hard time distinguishing between physical threats and emotional or mental stress. If you’re constantly busy, over-worked, and under-rested your body is operating at a low level of panic all the time and that can be incredibly draining on your heart. Taking just 15 minutes out of your day to rest and relax can work wonders for your mental and physical health. Try starting the day with a 10-minute meditation session or set aside a half hour every evening to read a book or soak in a hot bath. Even if you aren’t able to change your stressful situation, you can change how you handle it and giving your mind and body a break once in a while will do you immeasurable good.
Mistake #5: Smoking
According to the American Heart Association, smoking is the most preventable cause of premature death in the United States, accounting for more than 440,000 deaths each year. Smoking contributes to a number of serious chronic health problems, not the least of which is heart disease. Cigarette smoking can increase blood pressure, decrease exercise tolerance, and increase the risk for blood clots. It can also contribute to atherosclerosis, or the buildup of fatty plaques in the arteries which greatly increases your risk for heart attack.
When you quit smoking, the health benefits kick in almost immediately, though it may take a few years for your risk of heart attack or stroke to drop down to normal levels. Just know that these benefits may be limited if you continue to smoke other substances such as cigars or marijuana. Even secondhand smoke can increase your risk for heart problems.
Following a healthy diet and engaging in regular exercise is a recipe for heart health, but you also have to take a look at some of your other habits to see if they might be harming you as well. If you want to keep your heart beating strong for another couple of decades, start taking care of it now by dropping the bad habits discussed above.