When it comes to heart health, how you live may make all the difference in how long you live. A plethora of studies links strong hearts to exercise, not smoking, and reduced stress. Yet 23 percent of U.S. adults smoke, and 78 percent don't exercise regularly. Countless others have high-strung, multitasking lifestyles. What are these people missing?
"Information," says Steven G. Aldana, PhD, a professor and researcher of lifestyle medicine at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah. Aldana's studies show that anyone can reduce heart disease risk with simple lifestyle changes. So here they are: five no-brainer habits that will help keep your heart strong for years to come.
Say ommm ...
According to a 2004 global study, stress is responsible for one-fifth of all heart attacks worldwide (Lancet, 2004, vol. 364, no. 9438). Many techniques, including yoga and tai chi, can help, but new research cites meditation as the best method of all (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2006, vol. 166, no. 11). Researchers focused on Transcendental Meditation, based on an ancient art from India, and found that it lowers blood pressure, improves insulin levels, and helps regulate the autonomic nervous system, which controls the heart muscle. For the most benefit, practice meditation for 20 minutes twice a day, says Fairfield, Iowa-based Robert Schneider, MD, FACC, coauthor of the study and author of Total Heart Health (Basic Health, 2006).
Clean up the yard
Yes, regular exercise is best, but even a little physical activity goes a long way toward staving off heart problems. When you burn just 500 calories per week, researchers say, your heart disease risk starts declining (Circulation, 2000, vol. 102, no. 9). Current studies confirm that a few hours of housecleaning and yard work per week improve blood pressure and that four ten-minute brisk walks can be as beneficial as one long exercise session (Journal of Hypertension, 2006, vol. 24, no. 9; Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2005, vol. 37, no. 8). And here's an easy one: Walk the dog or play with your kids after dinner—one new study suggests that physical activity following a fatty meal can reverse your dinner's artery-clogging effects (European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2006, vol. 98, no. 3).
When it comes to the exercise-as-magic-bullet theory, however, there is a catch: Hard-core athletes may have a slightly higher risk of heart attack than average exercisers (American Journal of Cardiology, 1999, vol. 83, no. 7). That's because sudden, intense exertion may trigger attacks, especially in cold weather, when blood vessels are constricted. But does that mean intense exercise alone causes heart attacks? Not likely. Even seasoned, healthy athletes can have hidden heart problems that don't appear until it's too late (see "Check Out Those Genes," below). So if you're planning to push the envelope and run a marathon or climb a mountain, see your doctor first.
Acupuncture is gaining ground as an excellent therapy for heart problems. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and China's Heilongjiang College found that acupuncture calms a group of nerve cells called the endorphin system, which helps lower blood pressure and regulate heartbeat (Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine, 2003, vol. 23, no. 1). The newest approach is electroacupuncture, in which needles attached to a device generate electronic pulses. Acupuncture still needs more research as a treatment for heart disease, but it's already a promising option for helping hypertension.
Watch your mouth
We're not talking foul language here. Instead, take a long, hard look at your teeth and gums—or ask your dentist to. New research shows that people with periodontal disease are nearly twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery disease (Journal of Periodontology, 2006, vol. 77, no. 7). The theory is that oral bacteria from the buildup of food and plaque can enter the bloodstream and attach to fatty deposits in the heart's blood vessels, leading to clots. The findings "support accumulating evidence that warding off oral bacteria may be good for your heart," says P.D. Miller Jr., DDS, president of the American Academy of Periodontology. So brush and floss daily, and schedule regular dental exams.
Check out those genes
Unlike smoking or diet, a genetic history that includes high blood pressure, heart attacks, or high cholesterol is one risk factor beyond your control. But you can do something: Schedule a preventive visit with a cardiologist to evaluate your cholesterol, lipid profile, and triglycerides, and to record your full family medical history. In addition, seek out a naturopathic doctor to evaluate your lifestyle and family history and to get recommendations for heart-healthy foods, herbs, or supplements.
To keep her heart healthy, writer Gina DeMillo Wagner borrows from her Italian heritage—long naps, family gatherings, and the occasional glass of Chianti.