A Cardiologist Shares His Top Tips for Heart Health
Keeping your heart healthy is critical for living a long and active life, and while some of the steps you can take are obvious, others might surprise you. Dr. Nicholas Ruthmann, a cardiologist with the Cleveland Clinic, shares his best advice for the routine habits you can change—or start—to keep your ticker strong.
Pack-a-day smokers have double the risk of a heart attack compared to nonsmokers, and the changes to your body start almost immediately after you quit: Eight hours after your last cigarette your blood oxygen levels are already increasing, and within a few weeks, lung function improves by as much as 30 percent. "Smoking increases inflammation in the body and plaque buildup in the heart's blood vessels and thickens the blood, which can lead to clots inside veins and arteries," says Dr. Ruthmann. "These clots can lead to heart attacks and stroke. If you're a smoker, the single most important thing you can do for your heart and body is to quit." Dr. Ruthmann recommends marking a stop-date on your calendar, and telling your friends, family, and doctor to help keep you accountable to it. "Easier said than done," he acknowledges, "but quitting smoking is the best thing a smoker could do to improve not only their heart health, but overall health, as well."
Lower your cholesterol.
Often a result of unhealthy diet choices and too-little exercise, higher levels of LDL cholesterol are commonly connected to heart disease and heart attacks. "Cholesterol directly leads to an increase in plaque formation in the coronary arteries that directly supply blood to the heart which, if significantly blocked, can lead to symptoms including chest pain and heart muscle death," says Dr. Ruthmann. "By being mindful about what we eat and being active most days a week, we can minimize risk of developing a heart attack."
Strengthen your heart muscle.
Experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, which isn't just about building strong quads and biceps. "The heart is a muscle like any other muscle—if you don't work it, it will get weak," explains Dr. Ruthmann. "Exercise also helps to control your weight, as obesity is another big risk factor for a heart attack: Thirty minutes of moderate intensity activity increases the body's metabolism for many hours afterwards, which helps to continue to burn calories and more fat. Try to break a sweat most days, and try to find ways to do activities you really enjoy. Whether it's walking with a friend or loved one, playing pickleball or golf—just keep moving."
Find balance in your eating habits.
A heart-healthy diet—Dr. Ruthmann recommends the Mediterranean diet—will be low in fat and sugar, high in vegetables and fruit, and anchored by lean proteins instead of processed meats. If your eating habits need a makeover, Dr. Ruthmann suggests focusing on adding before subtracting: "Instead of restricting food intake, focus instead on what to put in—add one fruit or a vegetable to each meal," he says. "This focuses your mindset about healthy eating. Studies show that 80 to 95 percent of people who try a crash diet gain the weight back." And don't ignore hunger signals, either—just pay attention to what your body is really trying to tell you. "Often we eat for emotional reasons: We get sad, bored, or feel nervous," says Dr. Ruthmann. "None of these are helpful for the heart and your overall health. It's a conditioned response in many cases, and being more mindful of the reason to eat can help recondition our brains to not turn to food as often."
Social connections may seem less obviously related to heart health than diet and exercise, but they're still key, says Dr. Ruthmann. "Research has found that social isolation and loneliness can impact a person's risk of coronary heart disease and stroke—if you and your social circle are focused on a healthy lifestyle, you're much more likely to stick with it," he says. "Connect with others, even if virtually during the pandemic."
Don't skimp on tooth-brushing.
"My mom used to tell me when I was a kid to 'Only brush the teeth I want to keep,'" notes Dr. Ruthmann. "If she only knew how important oral health is to heart health! Studies have shown that gum disease is connected to heart disease, so take care of those pearly whites."