5 Habits for a Healthy Heart

By Susan Ince

The vast majority of heart attacks never need to happenThe vast majority of heart attacks never need to happenWhen it comes to preventing heart disease, lifestyle rules. People who follow just five habits are significantly less likely to die of it than those who skip four or all five of them, an analysis of national health survey data has found. The habits: not smoking, getting regular exercise, avoiding obesity, eating well (with five or more daily servings of fruits and veggies), and enjoying one to seven alcoholic drinks a week. Strikingly, even though everyone started the study with normal blood pressure and cholesterol, that didn't protect the rule-skippers. "A healthy lifestyle is more powerful than medicine," says study leader Dana King, M.D., of the Medical University of South Carolina. Moving up from "pretty good" (three out of the five good habits) to "perfect" (all five) reduced people's mortality risk over the two-decade study period by a whopping 50%. It's a whole package: "Some women think they're safe as long as they don't gain weight, but that's not true. A good diet and exercise are separate elements that do a hundred other healthy things for you," says Dr. King. Here, based on the latest research, the best ways to start.

1. Set a brisk pace

If your bike, skates, and tennis racquet are collecting dust, now's the time to brush them off. In a large 10-year Dutch study, people who got at least moderate exercise reduced their risk of heart attack significantly, while those who did only lower-intensity walking and gardening did not. So grab your girlfriends and enjoy some grown-up playdates. When you walk, make sure your stride hits beneficial levels: Aim for 90 to 113 steps per minute (based on your height and fitness level) or, more simply, use the "slightly hard to talk" test (you can speak, but you wouldn't want to tell a long story).
If you like a heart-pounding sweat, go ahead and make your workout more intense. But it's not necessary - and research has shown that women are more likely to stick with their routine if it's moderate.

Related: Women's Guide to Heart Health at Every Age

2. Enjoy life

If you're not happy with your job, family, sex life, or self, it can make your heart hurt - literally. In a long-term study of British government workers, those with lower levels of satisfaction racked up higher rates of heart disease. You don't need to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety, or have superhigh stress, for there to be an impact - just a lack of joy in key areas of your life could do it. So find ways to boost yourself out of the blah zone: In the study, every big step toward the positive - improving family relationships or finding more engaging work - was marked by lower heart disease risk.

3. Let greens outsmart your genes
Whether good or bad, you can't change the DNA your mom and dad passed on to you, but it turns out you can keep some dangerous genes from undermining your heart health. In two large international studies, researchers looked at heart disease rates in people with gene variations on chromosome 9 - known to significantly increase odds. Sure enough, people with the risky variations had more heart disease, but here's the kicker: That was true only if they also ate a crummy diet (the investigators referred to their eating as "non-prudent"). Those who followed the healthiest diets had no more heart disease than those without the risky gene variations. That involved consuming several servings a day of two out of the following categories - fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, and berries. The most powerful food: raw veggies. So pass the crudités before dinner, and slice plenty of raw carrots and cucumbers on your leafy greens.

Related: Heart Tests That Could Save Your Life

4. Find out what the (eye) shadow knows

If you have trouble applying eye shadow or concealer smoothly because of yellowish eyelid bumps, the problem may be more than just cosmetic. In a long-term Danish study, people with lipid-filled bumps around eyes had a 48% higher chance of having a heart attack within the next three decades than those with smooth lids. The finding was especially true for women under the age of 55. In general, those with eyelid bumps also had higher levels of bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and lower levels of good HDL cholesterol. But researchers were surprised to find that even when those blood tests were normal, heart attack risk was still elevated. So make sure your doctor takes a peek at your face while your eyes are closed. If she spies the eyelid sign, it may mean your body is prone to depositing cholesterol where it doesn't belong - including in blood vessels - and that you'd benefit from a more aggressive approach toward all your risk factors.

5. Get a wake-up call
People who get too little sleep (six hours or less a night), plus have poor-quality rest, face a 65% higher risk of heart disease, a Dutch study of 20,400 people found. So take your zzz's seriously. Tell your doctor if you're having trouble sleeping or if you're waking up without feeling refreshed. And adopt good sleep hygiene - no caffeine after lunch, regular bedtimes and wake-up times, plenty of exercise in the early part of the day, no television or computer in bed - to help you get the rest your heart needs. (For more tips, read 25 Ways to Sleep Better Tonight.)

Related: Your Target Heart Rate


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