The heart is the hardest working muscle in the body. In an average lifetime, it beats 3 billion times, pumping 60 million gallons of blood. While the heart is a remarkable organ, it's often taken for granted.
For most people, keeping this important muscle in top form is a matter of maintaining overall good health through proper diet, exercise and not smoking. These help reduce a person's risk of heart disease, the nation's number one killer.
"Heart disease often begins when we're teenagers," says Dr. Barry Tedder, a cardiologist in Jonesboro, Ark., explaining that the fatty substance called plaque can begin blocking arteries and vessels as early as adolescence, making the heart work harder.
Quitting smoking also is basic to a healthy heart because smoking encourages plaque buildup and causes blood vessels to narrow. "Within two years of giving up nicotine, your risk of heart disease drops to that of someone who has never smoked," Dr. Tedder says.
Then, there's exercise. Almost any kind of activity benefits the heart. Dr. Tedder recommends taking vigorous 10-minute walks three times a day and using the stairs. Even raking leaves, vacuuming and washing the car is heart smart.
"The added benefit to exercise is it burns calories," Dr. Tedder says, noting that being overweight also increases the risk for diabetes and high blood pressure.
Food as fuel
A healthy heart also needs the right kind of fuel, says Jeannie Moloo, a registered dietician in Granite Bay, Calif. She recommends making whole grains, such as oats, barley and brown rice, part of a healthful diet. "They act as sponges, absorbing fat and moving it away from the heart and out of the body."
Replacing animal fats, such as butter and lard, with small amounts of monosaturated fat found in olive and canola oil, avocados, almonds, peanuts and pistachios also is good for the heart.
The heart benefits from omega 3 fatty acids as well. These are found in flaxseed, walnuts, albacore tuna and wild salmon. Moloo also recommends modest amounts of wine, green tea, fruits and vegetables.
Above all, Moloo suggests monitoring how much you eat by following recommended serving size on food labels. "If there's something you really want, have it," she says. But "keep portions small and don't eat it every day."
Maintaining proper diet and overall good health is a great way to be kind to your hard-working heart.