Sure, regular exercise and a healthy diet are key for maintaining a strong heart. But there's also a host of other habits that can support heart health too.
We spoke to cardiologists, who shared their everyday heart-protective practices that you can incorporate into your own daily routine.
1. Prioritize Sleep
A third of American adults report they don't get the recommended seven hours of sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But catching zzzs is crucial for heart health.
Indeed, people who don't log enough pillow time tend to experience more health problems, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity, which may raise the risk for heart disease, heart attack and stroke, per the CDC.
Alternatively, sufficient sleep — a solid seven to nine hours each night — "helps lower your blood pressure, keep you happier, maintain [a healthy] weight and reduce stress hormones," John Higgins, MD, sports cardiologist with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Need Help Drifting Off to Dreamland?
Here are the CDC’s strategies for a sounder slumber:
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends.
- Exercise daily, but try not to slate your sweat sessions within a few hours of bedtime.
- Limit artificial light before bedtime (that includes your smartphone).
- Avoid eating or drinking a few hours before bedtime, especially fatty, sugary foods and alcohol.
- Prep your bedroom: A cool, dark, quiet environment is optimal for sleep.
If you want a healthy heart, make meditation a part of your daily routine.
"We can all admit that we have been pushed to the limits with stress this year, and meditation has been an important part of what has enabled me to manage it," says Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, a New York-based cardiologist.
"Research has shown that meditation for 20 minutes twice a day can decrease the incidence of high blood pressure and heart disease," Dr. Steinbaum says.
That's because a meditation practice "balances the autonomic nervous system, increasing the resting parasympathetic system and decreasing the sympathetic 'fight or flight' system that is associated with the release of stress hormones," she explains.
Plus, sitting still in meditation also improves your sleep and energy levels, Dr. Steinbaum adds. Indeed, a soothing sleep meditation can be like a lullaby after a long day.
New to Meditation?
Meditation apps like Insight Timer are a great place to start. Begin with short sessions — even just five minutes long — and gradually work up to longer sit times.
3. Laugh a Lot
When it comes to heart health, laughter may truly be the best medicine. Laughing (and smiling) can lower your blood pressure and stress hormones, Dr. Higgins says. In fact, preliminary research indicates that a good chuckle can improve artery function and blood flow, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
But how? While the exact mechanism is still unknown, scientists hypothesize that it has something to do with the endorphins you produce when you laugh. These brain chemicals may bind with opiate receptors in the lining of blood vessels, triggering the release of nitric oxide, which relaxes arteries, per Harvard Health Publishing. And when your arteries are relaxed, they grow wider and more flexible, boosting blood flow.
Cue the Laugh Track
While a good guffaw isn’t a cardiological cure-all, it can certainly be part of your heart-healthy lifestyle. The next time you need a raucous belly laugh, pop on Netflix. “A romantic comedy will make you feel better and boost nitric oxide production,” Dr. Higgins says.
4. Opt for the Outdoors
Spending more time in the great outdoors is another way to optimize your heart health.
What's more, research suggests that vitamin D may play a role in preventing certain conditions, including heart attacks, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
One Simple Way to Get More Sunshine
Try taking a quick walk during your lunch break. Basking in natural light earlier in the day will also help you sleep better at night (which we know is good for your ticker), per the CDC.
5. Play Your Favorite Tunes
There's nothing like a great song to uplift you. Turns out, there's science behind this feel-good effect.
"Listening to your favorite music for a half hour each day improves mood and increases nitric oxide production," Dr. Higgins says. (Remember, nitric oxide helps relax your arteries and ease blood flow.)
Good tunes can even temper emotional strain for people in high-stress professions. A November 2011 study in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that nurses who listened to their favorite soothing music for 30 minutes had lower perceived stress levels, heart rates and cortisol levels than their counterparts who simply sat quietly for a half hour.
And reducing stress is essential for protecting your heart. That's because when you're feeling tense, your body releases stress and inflammatory hormones, which can cause damage to the arteries and may eventually lead to heart disease, Dr. Steinbaum says. So, anything that can slash stress — like an awesome playlist — will help promote a healthier heart.
Add More Music to Your Day
Try playing music during daily activities (like running errands, cooking dinner and cleaning your bathroom) and during exercise or mini, midday dance breaks.
Is This an Emergency?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How Does Sleep Affect Your Heart Health?”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Laugh and be thankful—it’s good for the heart.”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Spending time outdoors is good for you, from the Harvard Health Letter.”
- Journal of Advanced Nursing : “The effect of music on biochemical markers and self-perceived stress among first-line nurses: a randomized controlled crossover trial.”