New This Month

Heart-Healing New Year's Resolutions

Looking for motivation to keep going with those healthy resolutions you started last month? Here’s the nudge you need. New research shows that a few small steps may just add up to big benefits for your heart.

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Photography by: Bea Crespo
It’s all connected: To keep your heart healthy, it’s important to take good care of other parts of your body, too.

by Elena Rover

Sure, your heart benefits from the entire list of super-habits: Eat right, exercise regularly, keep your weight in check, don’t smoke, sleep enough, and manage your stress. But there are some other surprising habits associated with cardiac health, says Kirsten O. Healy, a cardiologist at New York–Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, in New York City. Evolving evidence shows that making simple efforts to care for various parts of your body—such as flossing daily or eating more vegetables, the very things you might already have resolved to do this year—may also help protect against heart disease. Here are four connections to consider.

Be good to your gums.

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Why it matters: People with periodontal disease may be more likely to develop heart disease and blocked arteries; one theory is that bacteria from the mouth may be entering the bloodstream via openings in gum tissue. In fact, your mouth and heart are so closely connected that scientists are developing a test that could predict heart attacks by measuring signs of heart inflammation in saliva, says Onn Haji Hashim, Ph.D., head of the department of molecular medicine at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

What you can do: Get your teeth cleaned four times a year. In between, brush two to three times a day and floss daily. A large 2014 American Journal of Preventive Medicine review of insurance data found that good oral hygiene resulted in a 20 to 40 percent decrease in healthcare costs and fewer trips to the hospital for heart disease.

Protect your lungs.

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Why it matters: Your lungs take in the oxygen that your heart pumps around the body, and they remove waste gases and exhale them before that blood goes back to the heart. If you have shortness of breath, the heart has to work harder to get its job done. In fact, a review paper published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine in 2012 found that people who had limited airflow on a spirometry test (exhaling fast and long into a tube) had about twice the risk of cardiovascular disease of those whose lungs were strongest.

What you can do: The number-one tip, of course, is to not smoke. Also, try to limit how much secondhand smoke, air pollution, car exhaust, and fireplace smoke you breathe in. Wash your hands often to avoid colds, and get an annual flu shot—not only are minor respiratory illnesses potentially damaging, they can lead to bronchitis or pneumonia. To keep your lungs strong, get 30 to 60 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days.

 

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Watch your waistline.

Why it matters: It is well established that packing on pounds is bad for your heart—but belly fat is by far the worst. A 2015 Annals of Internal Medicine long-term study that followed 15,184 people showed that normal-weight people with bulging bellies had the worst survival rates—even worse than those of obese folks. The problem: visceral fat, deep in the belly, which pumps out hormones and immune-system chemicals that disrupt levels of blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides in the blood. This can then lead to blood-vessel damage, followed by plaque clogging the arteries.

What you can do: Eat at least three small, healthy meals a day, spacing out the calories. In a new Ohio State University study, researchers manipulated the meals of mice to mimic mealskipping and yo-yo dieting. It turned out that these mice gained more belly fat than those that ate regularly. As for exercise, a large 2015 study from the London School of Economics and Political Science found that women who walked briskly for 30 minutes five days a week tended to be a halfinch slimmer in the waist than gym-goers working out at a moderate level, and almost two inches slimmer than couch potatoes. “Walking is an easier activity for women to fit into their busy schedules, making it the best activity for reducing belly fat,” says lead author Grace Lordan, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of social policy at the London School of Economics. The ultimate message: The best exercise is whatever you’ll do often.

There’s another key factor: “Prolonged exposure to stress causes an increase in the hormone cortisol, which is linked to developing abdominal fat,” explains Marianne Legato, M.D., director of the Foundation for Gender Specific Medicine, in New York City. You can cut back on cortisol with any stress-reduction technique that works for your mind, body, schedule, and budget, from meditation to aromatherapy, massage to exercise (which is also good for your lungs and heart directly).

Get smart about your gut.

Why it matters: A 2013 study in Nature Medicine pointed out that meats—formerly believed to be harmful to your heart simply because of their cholesterol and fat content—may actually be harmful for a different reason. When they are digested, a by-product of the process is a substance called TMAO, which has been shown to accelerate atherosclerosis in mice. In the future, doctors may give a TMAO blood test alongside your annual cholesterol check.

What you can do: Eat foods abundant in fiber and containing little fat, like dark leafy vegetables, says researcher Stanley L. Hazen, M.D., Ph.D., head of preventive cardiology and rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic. Also, use less butter and more olive oil, and eat more fish. What enhances gut health overall is a diverse microflora, and many of the foods that encourage this (such as those leafy vegetables) are, in fact, the same ones that are good for the heart.

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