Your heart works nonstop to keep your blood pumping, your organs fueled with oxygen, and your energy up. To keep it strong and healthy, make these smart and simple decisions throughout your day. The best news: It's a lot easier to help protect your ticker than you think.

By Naomi Barr
February 25, 2021
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Given that heart disease is the number-one cause of death of adults in the U.S., it's surprising, even alarming, how little people know about it. The condition kills more women each year than all cancers, including breast cancer, combined—a fact 68 percent of Americans don't know, according to a recent Cleveland Clinic survey. About one in 16 White, Black, and Hispanic women over age 20 has it. We're also fuzzy on preventing it: In the same survey, only 20 percent of respondents thought you should start getting your cholesterol tested in your 20s (true), while 58 percent said that popping an aspirin every day can help protect you (false).

heart-shaped tape
Credit: Mauricio Alejo

There are things you can do to fend it off, though, and they don't involve a pill. Most incidences of cardiovascular disease—which shows up as coronary artery disease (otherwise known ass CAD, the most common form), a heart attack, or heart failure—can be prevented by making healthy choices like eating better and exercising. Consider the nearly 89,000 women researchers followed for 20 years for a 2015 study published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology: 73 percent of the cases that cropped up among them might have been avoided, it found, had the subjects taken steps to keep their blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight in check, among other factors. We now know that these actions matter even more around menopause, when dipping estrogen levels may make women extra-vulnerable. This round-the-clock routine shows how easy it is to achieve those goals on a daily basis.

7 A.M. Rise and Breathe

It may sound redundant to close your eyes and meditate the minute you wake up, but stay with us. The logic is twofold: For one, the American Heart Association endorses practices like meditation and mindfulness, because research consistently affirms that they can help us manage our blood pressure, cholesterol, and stress. And two, you're most likely to commit when you do it first thing in the morning, per the popular app Headspace. Ten to 20 minutes is optimal, but sessions of even five can have a striking effect: Recent research shows that meditating can improve heart-rate variability (a sign of a healthy ticker), and a small 2013 study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology revealed that people who logged that amount daily gave theirs a boost.

7:30 A.M. Break a Sweat

Do something that gets you breathing harder and your blood pumping faster. The American Heart Association defines this as moderate exercise, and advises getting 150 minutes of it a week. If you're in a rush, don't worry: "You can do a half hour now, or some 10- or 15-minute bouts later in the day—it doesn't matter," says Michele Olson, PhD, senior clinical professor of sports science and physical education at Huntingdon College, in Montgomery, Alabama. "It can be getting on your elliptical, walking the dog, or climbing stairs in your house while doing chores." Or, to kick-start your morning, try this four-minute circuit from New York City wellness expert Robert Brace: 20 seconds each of running in place, jumping jacks, air punches, and squats. Push yourself to go as fast as you can, resting between exercises; repeat twice. "The quick bursts of high intensity followed by short bursts of rest can help raise your metabolism, burn fat, and build muscle in a fraction of the time," he says.

At least twice a week, add strength or resistance training, advises cardiologist Lena Mathews, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in Baltimore. A 2019 study out of Iowa State University that tracked more than 12,500 adults observed that those who lifted free weights or hit the bench press regularly cut their heart-disease risk by 40 to 70 percent. Using your own body weight by doing push-ups, squats, and Pilates counts, too.

8 A.M. Get Your Oats

Oatmeal truly is the champion of breakfasts. The grain brims with soluble fiber, which helps subdue harmful LDL cholesterol and keep your arteries clear; the steel-cut kind has a lower glycemic index than instant or rolled, so it's best for your blood sugar. If you don't have time to stir over the stove, start the night before. Combine half a cup each of steel-cut oats and almond milk and a teaspoon of nut butter in a jar; add a drop or two of Stevia (glycemic index: zero) and chia seeds (for fiber); and chill in the fridge till morning, suggests registered dietitian Vanessa Rissetto, acting director of the dietetic internship program at New York University. When you're ready to dig in, top it with antioxidant-rich, artery-protecting blueberries, strawberries, or apple slices.

8:30 A.M. Clean Your Teeth

Brushing and flossing not only prevent cavities, they also clear away the bad bacteria that can cause gum disease. We've known for a while that if you have that, you're two to three times more likely to develop CAD. But new findings published in Journal of Dental Research may pinpoint why. Gum disease appears to trigger an overproduction of infection-fighting white blood cells called neutrophils; while that's beneficial at first, they go on to release inflammation-causing cytokines in your body that can irritate blood vessels and cause arterial plaque to form. This, in turn, can set the stage for a heart attack or stroke.

Got your brush out? Good. Now keep it going for the two full minutes recommended by the American Dental Association; shorter brushing times have also been linked to blood-vessel damage, an early indicator of CAD. Moving along to flossing: Some studies say it's okay to skip, but any dentist will tell you it's non-negotiable. To make it a snap, try a water flosser. There's no winding the thread around your fingers and maneuvering inside your mouth, it's fast, and it's "phenomenal for gum health," says Richmond, Virginia-based practitioner Graham Forbes. He suggests buying one with a pressure of at least 70 PSI to do the job right. Also, it's fine to floss just once a day—either in the morning or before bed.

10:30 A.M. Refill Your Coffee

And keep it coming, if you want. "Data has very consistently shown that for each cup—up to about six—there's a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease," says cardiologist Karol E. Watson, MD, PhD, director of the UCLA Women's Cardiovascular Health Center, in Los Angeles. Researchers have yet to discover exactly how coffee is protective, but it's thought that the potent antioxidants and caffeine play a role. Just go easy on the sugar, which can contribute to inflammation, and high-calorie creamers.

12 P.M. Break for Lunch

Don't wait till your stomach is growling—or the credits roll on The View, or the meeting you know will run long winds down. Aim to eat at the same time every day. That makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight (and a healthy heart), recent research concludes. As for what you put on your plate, most experts agree that a Mediterranean-style diet is the clear winner for your cardiovascular system. That means mostly whole grains, leafy greens, and other vegetables, fruits, nuts, and legumes; some poultry, fish, and low-fat dairy; and only occasional red or processed meats. "Instead of thinking, I'll have a piece of chicken or fish with a few carrots on the side, it should really be, Let me make this plate of vegetables with a little bit of chicken or fish on the side," says Andrew Freeman, MD, the Denver-based co-chair of the American College of Cardiology's Nutrition and Lifestyle Workgroup.

2 P.M. Take a Lap

We've all made some not-so-great impressions on our sofas and desk chairs over the past year. Sitting for long stints isn't just bad for your waistline; it's bad for your heart. Luckily, it doesn't take much to offset inertia. A half-hour stroll can undo the negative effects of sitting for 8.5 to 10.5 hours, says a new analysis in British Journal of Sports Medicine. What's more, just 11 minutes has a measurable benefit, and can help you live longer. We all have time for that.

3:30 P.M. Snack Smart

The cognitive nosedive you're sensing is real. So give your tired eyes a break from the computer screen, and power up with healthy fats and protein. Rissetto mixes a teaspoon of nut butter or Nutella into nonfat plain Greek or Icelandic yogurt to make a pudding-like treat, or stirs a teaspoon of powdered ranch dressing into the yogurt and dips in sliced vegetables. For a warm bite, top a Wasa multigrain cracker with marinara and a thin slice of mozzarella, and toast it.

6 P.M. Eat Dinner

See: lunch. But aim for smaller portions. A study published last year in Nutrients discovered that women who took in most of their calories at breakfast and lunch had a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who ate more at night. The lower your BMI, the less likely you are to develop cardiovascular disease, particularly heart failure and coronary heart disease.

8 P.M. Pick a Sitcom

Researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center, in Baltimore, saw that when their study subjects watched a comedy, the lining of their blood vessels (or the endothelium) responsively relaxed and expanded, boosting healthy blood flow by 22 percent on average—about the same benefit as light physical exercise—and the effect lasted about an hour. If you must watch American Horror Story, chase it with lighter fare: When the same subjects watched a stress-inducing film, their endothelium (which, when damaged, is an early mark of heart disease) constricted so much it reduced their blood flow by 35 percent. Now that's scary.

11 P.M. Hit the Sack

A consistent bedtime is paramount to healthy sleep. Turning in at erratic times is linked with a higher BMI and blood-sugar and blood-pressure levels, and increased rates of stroke, per a 2018 Duke University study. If 11 is early for you, make sure to allow for seven to eight hours of shut-eye. Says Dr. Freeman, when it comes to helping prevent heart disease—or any disease, for that matter—"that's the sweet spot."

Styling by Fidel Castañeda.

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