Making Heart-Friendly Choices
"Your life expectancy shifts within three months of adopting a new lifestyle," says Mehmet Oz, M.D., a cardiac surgeon and director of the cardiovascular institute at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. "That can be good news or bad, depending on whether you adopt healthy habits or bad ones. Either way, you can't rest on yesterday's laurels." With that in mind, here's what you can do keep your ticker in tip-top shape.
Move Your Body
Exercise is a boon to the heart—it releases nitric oxide, a substance that lowers blood pressure, and soothes inflamed arteries so plaque is less likely to accumulate on blood vessel walls. "In the prevention of heart disease, if I had to choose between diet and exercise, I'd always put exercise first," says Oz. "Thin people in poor shape don't do as well as fat people in good shape." As evidence, he points to a 2006 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found women who were fat and fit were less likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes than their peers who were willowy but woefully out of shape. "Of course, I'd rather see [people improve] both [diet and exercise]," he says, "but exercise is the better predictor of longevity."
When Brandolino discovered she'd inherited a high risk for heart disease, she leapt into action. Always active but not very disciplined, she resolved to exercise at least 30 minutes five days a week—no excuses. Depending on her mood and the weather, she now jogs, in-line skates, walks, plays softball, or jumps rope. "Now I'm stronger, I sleep better, and I don't get as many colds," she says. "That helps me stick with it."
You don't have to be as zealous as Brandolino to protect your heart. Although the American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week, several short bursts of activity actually may be better for your heart than one long stint at the gym. Walking, gardening, and even vacuuming count toward your daily quota. In a September 2006 study published in the Journal of Hypertension, researchers at Indiana University found that four short, brisk walks scattered throughout the day were more beneficial than a 40-minute workout. Although both types of exercise (continuous and intermittent) equally reduced blood pressure, the effect lasted longer after short bursts compared with the long session. "We were really surprised," says Janet Wallace, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University. "This shows you don't have to go to the gym all the time to see results."
After exercise, the best way to take care of your heart is to be a smart eater. Eating fresh foods shields the heart for the long haul by staving off weight gain and diabetes, both risk factors for heart disease. In the short run, high-fiber, low-trans-fat foods flush the heart's plumbing and keep it working smoothly day after day. "What you eat for dinner tonight will influence your chance of having a heart attack tomorrow," says Oz. "It's that closely related." For a happy heart, follow these five rules.