February 20, 2019

The three best and worst things you can do for your heart

three red hearts on a blue background

Madison, Wis. — Taking care of your heart is hard.

Or it can certainly seem that way. Heart disease remains the number one killer of men and women in the United States — that part is easy to grasp. Yet every week seems to bring a news report or study that identifies a new threat to one of your body’s most vital organs.

But heart health doesn’t have to be confusing or complicated. To simplify, heart experts at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health have boiled the question down to the three best — and the three worst — things you can do for your heart.

“If you can incorporate these things into your daily life, you’re giving yourself a much better chance to enjoy a long and healthy life, free of heart disease,” said James Stein, MD, director of preventive cardiology at UW Health and professor of medicine at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

Three ways you might be increasing your heart disease risk

Let’s start with the bad news. If you’re doing any of the following, you’re increasing your chances of heart disease.

  • Puffing. If you’re one of the millions of Americans who are still smoking, know this: With every puff, you’re dramatically increasing your chances of suffering a life-threatening heart attack. The chemicals in tobacco smoke raise blood pressure, reduce good cholesterol (HDL) and damage not only your blood vessels, but those of the people around you. But if you can find a way to quit and stay away from smoking permanently, you can reduce your risk almost immediately, and eliminate tobacco’s negative effects within three years.

    “There’s really no more significant thing you can do to improve the health of your heart than quitting smoking,” said Dr. Stein. “It’s the best thing you can do to protect your heart, your brain, and to prevent cancer.”

  • Finishing the entire six-pack. Don’t be confused by news reports that say you should have a drink or two a day to protect your heart – that is not a prescription. Alcohol is a source of empty calories and two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. At 100-150 calories for a small drink, it’s often not worth the long-term risks. It also causes rebound high blood pressure the next day, sensitizes your heart to abnormal rhythms and can even cause heart muscle damage and weakness.

    “Alcohol’s effect on the heart is not straightforward,” said Dr. Stein. “But a good general rule of thumb is not to drink alcohol for heart health. If you do drink alcohol, drink only in moderation. That means no more than one ounce of hard liquor, four ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer per day.”

  • Inflating the spare tire. Researchers have recently discovered that belly fat — in other words, a sizable spare tire — is a huge predictor of heart disease risk. In fact, at least one recent study has suggested that for every two inches you add to your gut, your risk of heart disease increases nearly 20 percent.

Three steps you can take to reduce your heart disease risk

Now for the positive steps:

  • Get a risk assessment. Most Americans are dangerously unaware of how much their age, genetics and lifestyle choices affect the health of their heart. UW Health experts agree that assessing your risk of a heart attack or death is the single most important thing you can do. Your doctor can help you identify the important numbers — your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and waist size — and assess your risk.

  • Reduce your weight. Notice the distinct absence of the word “diet.” Getting to a healthy weight is the goal if you are part of the majority of Americans who are obese or overweight. UW Health experts urge getting there through eating smaller portions of healthy foods, not by experimenting with the latest fad diet or forgoing food altogether.

    “The question really comes down to the type and amount of food you’re eating,” said Dr. Stein. “Not every diet is designed to help you have a healthy heart. Healthy diets are low in red meat, fried foods and sweets. They emphasize fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grain, fish and poultry.”

  • Exercise. In addition to eating right, another way to reduce your weight is getting off the couch and doing something, anything, to burn calories and stimulate your heart muscle.

    “The more you exercise, the better you’ll do,” said Dr. Stein. “Find ways to burn energy. Even walking for half an hour three times a week can have a positive effect on your heart’s health – though the more you do the more likely you are to actually lose weight.”

Three up, three down. Your heart will thank you for it.