Doctors’ Best Secrets for a Healthy Heart

Featured Article, Healthy Heart, Healthy Living
on February 7, 2012

If you’re saddled with a family history of heart disease, you may think your fate is sealed. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. You can’t control your genes, but you can control your other risk factors, including the choices you make, says Dr. Steve Nissen, co-author of Heart 411: The Only Guide to Heart Health You’ll Ever Need and a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic.

“Your lifestyle can make a big difference,” adds co-author Dr. Marc Gillinov.

We asked the authors of several recent books on cardiovascular health to share their secrets to getting a healthier heart—starting today.

Make a plan. “You can’t just say you’re going to do it,” says Dr. Sarah Samaan, author of Best Practices for a Healthy Heart: A Cardiologist’s 7-Point Plan for Preventing and Reversing Heart Disease. “You have to have a strategy.” Set specific, attainable milestones, like decreasing your cholesterol by a certain number of points, and then determine a few actions to help you achieve them.

Walk. Many people think they have to do high-intensity exercise or it doesn’t count. But actually, walking for 20-30 minutes per day, three times per week, can go a long way toward improving your cardiovascular health, Nissen says. Once you’re ready to try a different workout, go for it, but start slow. “You’re not trying to win the Olympic marathon,” Gillinov says. “You’re just trying to be a competitor, and the competition is for your health.”

Brown bag it. “There are so many upsides to avoiding fast food,” says Samaan. She recommends packing your own lunch every day so you can control what you’re eating and don’t resort to a quickie meal from a drive-through window that’s high in calories and saturated fat.

Make the switch to whole grains as much as you can. “If it’s white, don’t eat it,” says Dr. Mark Houston, author of What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Heart Disease. “White flour, white rice, pasta, white bread, white potatoes. About the only thing out there that’s white that’s good for you is cauliflower.”

Drink alcohol in moderation only. A daily glass (or two) of wine is compatible with heart health (and in some ways a healthier indulgence than cookies or chips). “But don’t take up drinking to help your heart,” Nissen cautions.

Beware of schemes and fads. Fad diets are commonplace, but that doesn’t mean you should fall for one. Stick with a reasonable diet low in saturated fats, like a Mediterranean-style diet. “And don’t waste your money on dietary supplements,” Nissen adds.

Address the stress. In her new book Smart at Heart: A Holistic 10-Step Approach to Preventing and Healing Heart Disease for Women, Dr. Malissa Wood, notes that chronic stress can ratchet up your risk for heart disease. “Miscommunication is responsible for much of the stress in our lives,” she says. Re-evaluate the way you communicate with your loved ones to make sure your relationships are a source of support, not stress.