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Beat a History of Heart Disease with These Simple Strategies

Here are 6 ways to get your heart healthier, even if heart disease runs in your family.

Hearts are everywhere come Valentine’s Day, and although they typically elicit warm, fuzzy feelings, heart disease actually costs Americans an estimated $444 billion each year. What’s worse, cardiovascular disease is still the leading cause of death for both men and women, taking the lives of 800,000 people every year, according to the American Heart Association.

While genetics certainly play a role, 8 out of 10 people with heart disease could be heart healthy by implementing a few simple lifestyle strategies.

“There’s no reason why our arteries need to get gummed up over the course of a lifetime,” says David Katz, M.D., director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center. Even if you have a genetic predisposition to high blood pressure or diabetes—both huge risk factors for heart disease—modifying your lifestyle and staying on top of your heart health could actually wash out that history.

We’ve gathered 6 strategies to help you keep your ticker healthy:

1. Know your numbers. Blood pressure, waist circumference, blood sugar levels, total blood cholesterol—they all matter to your heart. The figures that put you at risk: A waistline measuring greater than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men, blood pressure above 120/80 and a fasting blood sugar over 100 mg/dL. As for cholesterol, while it used to be measured in numerical ranges, it’s now looked at in conjunction with other risk factors—which means you need to have a conversation with your doctor. And if you’re receiving treatment to manage cholesterol, blood pressure or diabetes, you’re also at high risk of developing heart disease—even if your levels are in check.

2. Stand up. Americans spend the majority of their time sitting, explains Gretchen Reynolds, physical education columnist for the New York Times and author of “The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer.” And it turns out, “active couch potatoes”—those who work out 30 minutes daily, but sit for 7-8 hours a day—have a higher risk of heart disease than those who don’t exercise at all but move around throughout the day. “Sitting causes genetic changes that are particularly bad for the heart, reducing your body’s ability to break up fat in the bloodstream,” says Reynolds. In contrast, standing up for two minutes about every 20 minutes reduces your risk of heart disease. “The muscle contractions that hold you upright change the physiology in the body in ways that lessen circulating fat and reduce heart disease risk,” says Reynolds.

3. Ditch the sugar. “Sugar is toxic,” says Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., C.N.S., co-author of “The Great Cholesterol Myth.” “Put too much of it in the bloodstream and it begins to glob onto proteins and make them sticky.” Sugar also raises insulin levels, which starts a cascade of events that lead to fat storage. Not only do you gain fat but also high insulin levels lock fat cells into place, making it difficult to lose weight. Those fat cells don’t just sit on your hips, they’re active hormone factories releasing inflammatory proteins into the bloodstream.

4. Load up on super foods. A Mediterranean-style diet—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish and a daily glass of red wine—lowers blood pressure, reduces inflammation and protects the heart. In one study of male heart attack victims, those who received specific advice about how to implement a Mediterranean diet had a 73% lower risk of dying from heart disease than those given the standard prescription to follow a low-cholesterol, low-fat diet. Another study showed that people with the highest adherence to the Mediterranean diet had a 59% lower cardiovascular risk compared to those with the lowest adherence to the diet.

5. Get checked out. Don’t skip your annual physical. Making sure a doctor stays on top of your blood pressure, body mass index, waist circumference and lab tests such as fasting glucose and lipid panel, is critical to preventing a heart attack. “Assessing these levels can identify looming threats early, providing ample opportunity for corrective action (and disease management) when warranted,” explains Katz. If you have a family history of heart disease, or are overweight or obese, your doc may want to see you more frequently.

6. Manage stress. “Stress releases a whole host of hormones, particularly cortisol, that are damaging to cells in general, but especially to the heart,” says Reynolds. It’s impossible to obliterate day-to-day stress, but deep breathing and meditation can help counteract some of its ill effects. Research shows that daily meditation not only reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and promotes wellbeing, it also creates a surge in mood-stabilizing chemicals and feel-good hormones like serotonin.

Updated in January 2018

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