3 Easy Things to Do to Be Heart Healthier, from a Cardiologist
February is heart health awareness month, which you probably already know by now. Rather than thinking that getting heart healthy is a major task, there are actually easy, doable ways to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease right now and for months and years to come. It doesn't take a major sweeping lifestyle change to reduce your risk of ever having serious heart disease, since every little improvement in your daily habits can have big, lasting benefits. In fact, you can be heart healthier in just 10 minutes a day, according to a new study.
Here are three easy ways to be heart-healthier this month and every month, from cardiologist and plant-based advocate Dr. Joel Kahn, MD, Clinical Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine and bestselling author of Dead Execs Don't Get Bonuses, as well as Your Whole Heart Solution. He is also the founder of the Center for Cardiac Longevity.
Dr. Kahn spoke to us from his office where he was using his treadmill desk, rocking slightly back and forth during the interview. It's one way that he chooses to incorporate exercise into his day, to stay healthy while working. He tells us exactly how to incorporate exercise into your workday in all sorts of creative ways without having to spend an hour at the gym.
Here are Dr. Joel Kahn's tips to be heart-healthy to integrate into your daily life. And it's not hard. It's as simple as eating more vegetables (and avoiding animal fat), getting up from your desk to exercise every 10 to 15 minutes, and for lowering your stress, finding things to make you laugh, or listening to music. Dr. Kahn is one of the world’s top cardiologists, and an advocate for plant-based eating, shares his easy tips for eating healthier, exercising without having to even change your clothes, and managing stress to lower your risk of heart disease.
3 Easy Things to Do Today to Be Heart Healthier
1. Eat more plant-based and ditch meat and dairy
"Eat your vegetables! Americans, and people worldwide, are fiber deficient, nutrient deficient, and plant deficient." It's very simple, says Kahn, who has been plant-based for 45 years. "There's a four-part dietary picture we need to focus on: Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. If you eat those every day, then you will be heart-healthy. But don't add back in a pepperoni pizza, of course, since avoiding animal fat is important for heart health."
Avoid saturated fat, says research dating back in the 1950s, since that is when we started seeing more heart attacks in this country, identified smoking and also saturated fat as risk factors. That is the fat from butter, from cheese, from red meat, and from lard, and also in pastries like croissants, rich in butter consistently found over and over to trigger a mechanism in your liver that raises your cholesterol. So every major medical organization agrees that you should lower the amount of those foods to be heart healthier.
To be your heart healthiest, avoid all foods with saturated fat. The recommended daily amount is less than 10 percent according to the USDA, but even that is too high for people with heart disease, adds Kahn, who tells us that less is more when it comes to animal products and sat fat. "With plants, you can only run into trouble with coconut oil, palm oil, and crazy amounts of olive oil," says Kahn, who recommends the "Greener Mediterranean Diet" as a heart-healthy approach. That means substituting animal fat with plant-based foods and eating mostly fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, and staying as plant-based as possible.
2. Exercise, Even if it's just getting up every 10 to 15 minutes to move at home
A new study shows that even a short stint of exercise, like adding 10 minutes of movement a day, could save over 110,000 lives in the US a year. That means walking 10 more minutes, or, as Dr. Kahn suggests, getting up from your desk every 10 to 15 minutes and marching in place. "We need an app that reminds us to get up and move, and not sit for hours at a time," he says, which has been shown to be unhealthy for our heart and our overall metabolism. "Simply doing 20 squats in a row is a great way to get stronger, and get your heart pumping," he adds. From there you can add more, or branch out and do other floor exercises.
If that's already well within reach, add 20 burpees (a pushup followed by a jump up, reaching for the ceiling). Or add in a one-minute plank or lunges, or another body-weight bearing move that will get the blood pumping to the larger muscles, and therefore work your heart. "If we all could invest in a standing desk, with a treadmill, we could turn that into years of living heart healthier," explains Kahn, who himself ends up walking for seven or eight miles a day, at his standing treadmill desk in between patient meetings. "It's a worthwhile investment," he adds.
A new study finds that exercise cuts the risk of dying from heart disease
The study just released found that if every American between the ages of 40 and 85 years of age were to add just 10 minutes of exercise a day, it could save more than 110,000 U.S. lives a year, and adding 20 minutes a day could save over 220,000 lives a year. The point: More movement is better, but even a little has major benefits, especially if you have high blood pressure or are sedentary.
Adding 10 minutes of exercise lowered participants' risk of death over the period of the study by 7 percent while 20 extra minutes of exercise reduced risk by 13 percent, and an extra half-hour of moderate to vigorous activity cut the risk of death by 17 percent, the research found.
So adding an extra 20 minutes of exercise a day could prevent nearly 210,000 deaths a year, and 30 more minutes could prevent 270,000 deaths, the study found. Start with 10 and work up to 30 minutes a day, or longer if you can.
3. Manage stress with music, laughter, and breathing
"I tell my patients: Walk by a cemetery. Those are the only people I know who don't have stress," says Kahn. It's a grim reminder that all humans experience stress since it's part of the human condition, which can motivate us but also tell us when we need to make changes in our lives. How we manage it is the difference between being healthy and being unhealthy.
"I listen to music, mostly country, but they have found that Mozart is the most destressing music you can find. In an experiment one dairy farmer let his cows listen to Mozart and they were so calm that they produced more milk," Kahn tells us. He recommends oat milk over dairy, however, for human consumption.
"Laughter and humor are two of the most effective stress relievers we have," Kahn adds, and breathing exercises are also extremely efficient at lowering stress in the body. The reason that the heart gets affected by stress is that stress drives up inflammation in the body, which causes more stress on the circulatory system, and your heart has to counteract that by working harder, but in a chronic state. Play with the dog, a grandchild, or watch or read something funny that makes you laugh. None of this takes time, but all of it can help you shed stress.
Or use breathing exercises to slow down your breath, or try box breathing, which can be done anywhere, even at your desk. Breathe in for a count of four or five, slowly through your nose, and out for a longer count of five or six. Repeat several times until you feel calmer and less tense.
One more way to lower heart disease risk is to get more sleep and get to bed earlier. Kahn tells us that a study found that those who got to bed at 10 p.m. as opposed to 1 a.m. – even if they get the same amount of sleep – are less likely to have heart attacks or heart disease later in life.
Snoring is also a risk for heart disease, according to Dr. Kahn, since as you snore, you may be experiencing short bursts of not breathing, called sleep apnea, which has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. These short (30 second or less) periods of not getting oxygen can lower the amount of oxygen to the brain, the heart, and other organs during sleep, causing stress and aging during the very hours when your body should be recharging.
"This creates aging, since it drives up cortisol in the body and over time, your body ages as you sleep," Kahn explains. If you're a chronic snorer you can get a sleep test in your own home that will let you know if you need to treat your snoring for medical and health reasons. "Or you can tape your mouth shut while you sleep," Kahn adds. "That might solve it and make your spouse happier." He is only half kidding since he adds: Breathing through your nose is much healthier and slows down your stress, lowering cortisol and promoting heart health.
Bottom Line: For Heart Health, Eat Vegetables, Get Moving and Manage Stress
Being heart-healthy is not a matter of spending hours in the gym. Just eat more plant-based foods, avoid saturated fat and get moving. Then find joyful ways to destress every day, says cardiologist Joel Kahn, MD.