Everyone wants to have a healthy heart. Still, cardiovascular disease affects more than 1 in 3 adults in the United States. The good news is that some simple, everyday habits can make a big difference in your ability to live a healthy lifestyle.
Here are the 17 worst habits for your heart, and how to avoid them.
Sitting for hours on end increases your risk of heart attack and stroke, even if you exercise regularly.
“Intermittent exercise doesn’t compensate for the time you sit,” says Harmony R. Reynolds, MD, associate director of the Cardiovascular Clinical Research Center at NYU Langone Medical Center, in New York City.
Why? The lack of movement may affect blood levels of fats and sugars. Dr. Reynolds advises walking around periodically and, if you’re at work, standing up to talk on the phone.
Leaving hostility and depression unchecked
Are you feeling stressed, hostile, or depressed? It can take a toll on your heart. While everyone feels this way some of the time, how you handle these emotions can affect your heart health. “Those likely to internalize stress are in greater danger; research has shown a benefit to laughter and social support,” Dr. Reynolds says.
“And it’s helpful to be able to go to someone and talk about your problems.”
Ignoring the snoring
More than a minor annoyance, snoring can be a sign of something more serious: obstructive sleep apnea. This disorder, marked by breathing that is interrupted during sleep, can cause blood pressure to skyrocket.
More than 18 million Americans adults have sleep apnea, which increases the risk of heart disease. People who are overweight or obese are at higher risk for sleep apnea, but slim people can have it too.
If you snore and often wake up feeling tired, talk with your doctor; there are easy ways to screen for apnea, says Robert Ostfeld, MD, associate professor of clinical medicine at Montefiore Medical Center, in New York City.
While the exact reason is unknown, there is a strong link between gum disease and heart disease, Dr. Ostfeld says. If you don’t floss, sticky, bacteria-laden plaque build up over time, which can lead to gum disease. One theory is that these bacteria trigger inflammation in the body.
“Inflammation promotes all aspects of atherosclerosis,” Dr. Ostfeld says. Treating gum disease can improve blood vessel function.
Withdrawing from the world
It’s no secret that on some days, other human beings can seem annoying, irritating, and just plain difficult to get along with. However, it makes sense to strengthen your connections to the ones you actually like. People with stronger connections to family, friends, and society in general tend to live longer, healthier lives. Everyone needs alone time, but you should still reach out to others and keep in touch whenever you can.
You’re either all or nothing
Call it the Weekend Warrior Syndrome. “I see so many people in their 40s and 50s dive into exercising with good intentions, hurt themselves, and then stop exercising all together,” says Judith S. Hochman, MD, director of the Cardiovascular Clinical Research Center at NYU’s Langone Medical Center.
With exercise, it’s wise to aim for slow and steady. “It’s more important to have a regular exercise commitment,” says Dr. Reynolds. “Be in it for the long game.”
Drinking (too much) alcohol
Sure, studies suggest a small amount of alcohol may be good for your heart. Alas, too many over-imbibe.
Excess alcohol is linked to a greater risk of high blood pressure, high levels of blood fats, and heart failure. In addition, the extra calories can lead to weight gain, a threat to heart health.
If you drink, stick to no more than two drinks per day for men, and no more than one a day for women. (One drink means a 12-ounce beer or 4-ounce glass of wine).
Being overweight is a major risk factor for heart disease, and 72% of men and 64% of women in the U.S are overweight or obese. Try to eat less, avoid oversize portions, and replace sugary drinks with water.
Dr. Reynolds and Dr. Hochman also suggest cutting portion sizes for high-calorie carbohydrates (think refined pastas and breads) and watching out for foods labeled “low-fat,” which are often high in calories.
Assuming you’re not at risk
Cardiovascular disease—including stroke, heart disease, and heart failure—claims more lives in the United States than any other illness, including cancer. “Don’t assume you’re not at risk,” says Dr. Ostfeld. High blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, being overweight, and smoking are all risk factors that should be kept in check.
Eating red meat
It’s best to think of red meat as an occasional treat rather than the foundation of a daily diet. Red meat is high in saturated fat, and there’s also evidence that processed meat, such as bacon and hot dogs, increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer. Ideally, less than 10% of your diet should come from animals and animal products, Dr. Ostfeld advises.
Can’t part with the beef? Choose a lean cut of red meat and limit your intake. “People have to know that if you want a steak a few times a month, it’s OK,” Dr. Hochman says. “It’s what you’re eating three times a day that’s the issue. Be in it for the long haul. Eat a balanced diet.”
Being a health procrastinator
Check in with an MD so that you know your numbers for cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. If these are elevated, you’re at risk for silent killers like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
One thought: The lifetime risk of developing hypertension, or high blood pressure, for adults in their mid-50s is approximately 90%, even with those who never had a problem before. “The general point is that just because you didn’t have it at 24 doesn’t mean you don’t have it at 54,” Dr. Ostfeld says.
Smoking or living with a smoker
Sure, you’ve heard it a million times before: Don’t smoke. But it bears repeating. “Smoking is a total disaster for your heart,” says Dr. Ostfeld. Smoking promotes blood clots, which can block blood flow to the heart, and contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries.
It’s also a smart bomb aimed at everyone around you, Dr. Ostfeld says. In fact, about 46,000 nonsmokers who live with a smoker die from heart disease each year because of secondhand smoke.
Stopping or skipping meds
Let’s be honest: Taking pills is a pain. There can be side effects. And it’s easy to forget your meds, especially if you feel fine.
“High blood pressure is called the silent killer because you don’t feel it,” Dr. Ostfeld says. “Saying you feel fine is not a justification for stopping these pills.”
There are 30 types of high blood pressure medications, so there are choices if one isn’t working, Dr. Hochman says. “If one medication doesn’t work, we can try something else.”
Avoiding fruits and vegetables
“The most heart-healthy diet is a plant-based diet,” Dr. Ostfeld says. That means loading up on fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and protein, and keeping junk food to a minimum. In fact, new federal dietary guidelines recommend that half of each meal should be composed of fruits and vegetables.
Research has found that people who eat more than five servings of fruits and vegetables a day had about 20% lower risk of heart disease and stroke than people who ate less than three servings per day.
Ignoring physical symptoms
If you used to walk up three flights of stairs without a problem, but suddenly you’re short of breath after one flight or have chest pressure, it’s time to call your doctor—now. Never assume it’s because you’re out of shape.
Doctors say “time is muscle,” meaning the quicker you get treatment for possible trouble, the less likely you are to have permanent damage to your heart muscle.
“It’s better for it to be much ado about nothing than sitting on a heart attack for six hours,” which is not uncommon, Dr. Ostfeld says.
Being a salty snacker
The more salt you consume, the higher your blood pressure rises. One in three American adults has high blood pressure, a major risk factor for stroke, kidney failure, and heart attack.
“Steer clear of packaged junk food, read the labels for sodium content, and stick to the outer portions of the supermarket, which is where the fruits, vegetables, and (unsalted) nuts are,” Dr. Ostfeld says.
Most of us should keep sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams a day. If you have high blood pressure or are over 50, cut back to 1,500 milligrams.
Eating empty calories
Foods high in sugar, fat, and oil deliver calories, but very few—if any—nutrients your body can use. Studies have shown that a diet full of empty calories increases the risk of obesity and diabetes.
Look for foods dense in nutrients, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, and unsalted nuts and seeds. Lean meats and poultry, along with fat-free and low-fat milk, are good choices as well.