The Research-Backed Habits Of Heart-Healthy People

Heart disease is the primary cause of death in the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of Americans (47%) have one of these risk factors for heart disease: high blood pressure, smoking, or high cholesterol.

There’s more than one way to keep your heart healthy. Simple changes, such as taking brisk walks and eating more fruit, can strengthen your heart. Andrea Chomistek, a researcher at Indiana University, says that “one or two healthy behaviors [have] a lower risk of heart disease.” Learn the most effective science-backed habits for strong heart health.

Eat Certain Kinds Of Fat

An internationally renowned Turkish diver, Sahika Ercumen eats avocado and egg during a flight to Sao Paulo
Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Ozge Elif Kizil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Our bodies need healthy fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. The “bad fat” that people advise against is trans fat, often found in industry-produced foods such as refrigerator dough and creamers. In the British Medical Journal (BMJ), a 2015 study observed that saturated fat does not harm the heart, but trans fat increases the risk of disease by 21%.

According to the American Heart Association, trans fat raises LDL cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol that harms our heart. Watch out for hydrogenated oils, a trans-fat solution that the FDA doesn’t consider safe. Whenever you can, pick out foods with 0% trans fat.

One Drink A Day Can Improve Heart Health

A lady holds a glass of wine while on the balcony during the Starz Power Bruch at Cochon
Peter Forest/Getty Images for Starz
Peter Forest/Getty Images for Starz

Many people know that overindulging in alcohol increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. But in 2001, research in the Postgraduate Medical Journal offered a different perspective. After analyzing over 100 studies, scientists concluded that moderate consumption reinforces heart health, regardless of drink type.

“It comes down to moderation,” explained Dr. J. Michael Gaziano, a preventative cardiologist with the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Division of Aging. “A safe amount–about one drink per day–may support a healthy heart and lower your risk of heart disease, while too much can be damaging.” To clarify, one drink equals about 12 ounces of beer or five ounces of wine.

Here’s Another Reason To Get More Sleep

A student naps in a lecture hall at the Freie Universitaet
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Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In 2014, researchers reported the heart-healthy habits of people who they had studied for over ten years. Of all the habits, sufficient sleep was given an honorary mention in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology. Aiming to sleep for at least seven hours a night significantly keeps your heart healthy and disease-free.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, deep sleep activates chemicals that relax your heart rate and blood pressure. Prolonged periods of restlessness, such as with sleep apnea, increase the risk of heart disease by 58%. If you’re struggling to catch seven hours of sleep, talk to your doctor.

For The Sake Of Your Heart, Check Your Stress

Woman lies down, stressed, on her bed

When we’re incredibly stressed, our breathing quickens, our muscles tense, and our heart rate accelerates. These are physiological results of stress that have a real impact on your heart. Chronic stress may wear out your heart over time, even in those with no prior history of cardiovascular disease.

“This isn’t just an anxiety attack,” asserts Dr. Deepak Bhatt, director of the Integrated Interventional Cardiovascular Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “When you do a cardiac catheterization procedure on [these patients], an artery that was previously open is now closed.” Engage in a stress-relieving activity such as meditation, a bath, or playing video games, for ten to 15 minutes every day.

Seriously, Eat More Fruits And Vegetables

Fruit and vegetables arranged in the shape of a heart.
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Which fruits and vegetables support your heart? That’s easy: they all do. In 2017, researchers scrutinized 95 studies and recorded their findings in the International Journal of Epidemiology. They found that five servings (about 2.5 cups) of fruits and vegetables per day slightly lowers your risk of heart disease. Upping that portion to ten servings decreases your risk by 28% and premature death by 31%.

According to the study, the foods that offered the most benefits include apples, citrus fruits, pears, leafy green vegetables, and yellow-orange vegetables. In short, any fruit or vegetable will help.

Don’t Keep The TV On All Day

Person watched Netflix on TV

In 2015, researchers assembled data after studying almost 70,000 women over 20 years. When the study began, nearly all women had diabetes or heart disease, and many cut their heart attack risk by 92%. One of the six healthy habits that they mentioned was watching less than seven hours of TV weekly.

The simple explanation is that TV time robs you of exercise time. A 2019 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association noted that those who watch TV and exercise don’t lower their heart health. Otherwise, watching four hours of TV a day is worse for your heart than a desk job, the study concluded.

Just Fifteen Minutes Of Exercise Helps You Live Longer

Pair jogs next to flower fields in Hamburg, Germany
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Holde Schneider/Bongarts/Getty Images

Exercise strengthens your heart, lowers your blood pressure, and reduces stress. Although many people know this, they still debate over how intensely one should exercise. In 2016, research from The American Journal of Medicine analyzed exercise intensity. The authors found that 15 minutes of daily exercise lengthened one’s life three years beyond their peers’.

“The truth is that if you’re exercising for health, it takes very little effort to see enormous benefits,” said Dr. Harvey Simon, the study’s author and an associate professor at the Massachusetts General Hospital. He claimed that 15 minutes of walking or gardening lowers one’s risk of heart attack and stroke.

Your Friends Can Literally Save Your Heart

Sabathia Jr. #52 of the Cleveland Indians hugs his mom as she serves up dinner at home
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If you need another reason to maintain fulfilling relationships, here’s one. Research shows that your friendships impact your heart health. In a 2017 study by the American Heart Association, scientists found that more social integration means less heart disease. This research was backed by a ten-year study review in Frontiers in Psychology.

According to Boston Scientific, researchers believe that social interaction reduces stress and depression, both of which contribute to cardiovascular disease down the line. If you want to carve out more social time, join a support group, adopt a pet, or volunteer at an organization.

Drink Water–At Least Five Glasses A Day

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Dehydration results in a less-healthy heart, according to a 2002 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Drinking five glasses daily will keep your heart strong and happy. In contrast, drinking two or fewer glasses of water may weaken your heart over time and open the gates to cardiovascular disease.

Research in the British Journal of Haematology found that blood viscosity directly relates to heart health. The thicker your blood is, the harder your heart works, which may tire it over time. Drinking plenty of water will lower your blood viscosity, so your heart can work with little strain.

Stand Up!

Luke Leafgren works on his portable standing desk invention in Harvard's Mather House dining hall
Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Desk jobs are as hard on the back as they are on the heart. In 2015, a meta-analysis of 41 studies noted that remaining sedentary increases adults’ risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. In another 2019 study, researchers stated that eliminating an hour of sitting time per day lowers the likelihood of heart disease by 26%.

The trick is to not sit for too long. If you have a standing desk, use it. Take brief walks throughout the day, or park your car farther away from your office. Consistent exercise will improve your heart health as well.

Measure Your Blood Pressure Frequently

A family doctor measures an elderly patient's blood pressure at her office
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According to a scientific analysis in The Lancet, high blood pressure was the leading cause of heart disease in 2010. This condition leads to hypertensive heart disease, which thickens the heart and narrows the arteries. The American Heart Association asserts that avoiding high blood pressure “should be a healthcare priority.”

If you don’t have high blood pressure, work to prevent it. Checking your blood pressure once a month or even once a year can help. A 2015 study in The New England Journal of Medicine reports that the risk of heart disease lowers with a blood pressure of 120 mm Hg or less.

Don’t Assume That You’re In The Clear

symbolic photo heart attack, heart disease, heart-shaped stethoscope on a med.
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If you haven’t had a blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar check-up in a couple of years, you’ve waited too long. The American Heart Association recommends getting your blood pressure checked once a year since symptoms don’t appear in most people. Blood glucose should be measured every three years, and cholesterol should be monitored every four to six years.

“Don’t assume you’re not at risk,” advises Dr. Robert Ostfeld, director of preventive cardiology at Montefiore Health System. If your cholesterol or blood sugar levels aren’t in the normal range, you’ll need more frequent check-ups and possibly medication.

Know Your Ideal BMI

Notebook lists Body Mass Index equation

Weight is a touchy subject because it often tugs at peoples’ self-esteem. But for doctors, weight is less about what you look like and more about heart health. Along with other studies, 2018 research in JAMA Cardiology concluded that high BMI (body mass index) leads to a higher risk of heart disease.

To maintain a healthy BMI, you need to know yours first. Visit a doctor to learn about a healthy weight range, as online BMI charts don’t take individual body types into account. “There is no one-size-fits-all,” says Dr. Chanté Wiegand, ND, a Naturopathic Doctor and Director of Education at The Synergy Company.

To Help Your Heart, Brush Your Teeth Daily

Two girls brush their teeth
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Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Believe it or not, gum disease carries some of the same risk factors as heart disease. According to Harvard Health, bacteria in the gums may travel to blood vessels. These bacteria inflame the arteries and create tiny blood clots that heighten the risk of stroke. Study after study has reported this correlation.

There is some debate over how much influence oral health has on the heart. In 2012, scientists from the American Heart Association reviewed several studies and decided that gum disease doesn’t always harm the heart. Even so, you’ll want to brush and floss daily if you can.

E-Cigarettes Can Harm

Chloe Lamb enjoys an electronic cigarette at the Vapor Shark store
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A research author for BMJ concluded that “no safe level of smoking exists for cardiovascular disease.” According to the 2017 study, smoking just one cigarette a day contributes to later heart disease and stroke. And researchers have found that adding e-cigarettes increases those odds.

In fact, many states began banning e-cigarettes in late 2019 due to a series of vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths across the nation. “Users of e-cigarettes face a higher risk of having a heart attack, experiencing emotional distress, and developing coronary artery disease (CAD) compared to non-users,” reported The American Journal of Managed Care in March of 2019.

Steer Clear Of Secondhand Smoke

Henry James smokes a cigarette near the Golden Gate Bridge
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Even if you don’t smoke, lingering around people who do can drastically impact your heart. According to a scientific study in Secondhand Smoke Exposure and Cardiovascular Effects, breathing in secondhand smoke heightens the risk of heart disease by 25% to 30%.

“There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke,” reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whenever you can, aim to limit your interaction with tobacco smoke. Otherwise, you’ll risk breathing in over 7,000 chemicals, 70 of which can cause cancer.

Enjoy Your Grains, As Long As They’re Whole

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Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Over the years, people have argued over how grains and gluten impact our health. In 2016, researchers mulled through 45 studies and recorded their answers in BMJ. They concluded that eating whole grains–including cereals and bran–reduces the risk of heart diseases, respiratory diseases, and cancer.

The American Heart Association states that whole grains provide fiber, which improves blood cholesterol levels. Whole bread also supplies nutrients such as B vitamins that carry oxygen to your heart; refined grains contain none of these benefits. The AHA recommends that you swap out at least half of your daily grains into whole grains.

Don’t Default To Salt

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BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Salt is essential to flavoring food, but too much of it creates a health hazard. Sodium pulls water into your blood vessels, which increases the amount of blood inside them. Hence, sodium raises blood pressure and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to the Annual Review of Public Health.

But how much salt is too much? According to a 2018 study by McMaster University, health risks only occur in people who eat over five grams of salt a day. To lower your sodium intake, replace your salt with other flavorful herbs and spices.

Why Fish Enhances Heart Health

A little girl eats bluefin tuna sushi at a sushi restaurant in Yokohama city, suburban Tokyo.
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Eating fish has been linked to stronger heart health. Why? Because of its omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids break down lipids, which cause inflammation and can create plaque in the arteries. In 2013, a review of 73 studies supported fish’s ability to prevent heart disease, according to the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism.

Whether omega-3 supplements help is up to debate. On the one hand, a study in The New England Journal of Medicine recorded that participants who took fish oil capsules didn’t experience a difference in heart health. But a 2019 meta-analysis by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that omega-3 supplements did help.

If You’re On Meds, Don’t Skip Them

Medicinal pills, one of which is heart-shaped

Some pain medications, antidepressants, birth controls, and herbal supplements influence your blood pressure. Stopping or frequently skipping these medications can make your blood pressure go haywire, which forces your heart to work more. Although it’s a pain, take your pills as directed.

If you’re on high blood pressure pills, don’t stop taking them because you feel fine. “High blood pressure is called the silent killer because you don’t feel it,” warns Dr. Ostfeld. Before you give up on any medication, check with your doctor to see if you can try something else.