Cutting your risk for cardiovascular disease doesn't necessarily require a total lifestyle overhaul. Many heart-healthy habits are surprisingly easy to adopt.
"There are plenty of small changes you can make in your day that can have a big impact on your heart health," said Dr. Richard Becker, a professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center, and a spokesman for the American Heart Association.
Here are six quick fixes that can help your heart:
|Do Your Ohm Work|
Research supports the idea that yoga can help reduce such cardiovascular risks as insulin resistance, high blood pressure and blood vessel inflammation. For the 2.7 million Americans diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in which the heart's upper chambers flutter randomly instead of contracting normally, yoga may be especially helpful.
A new Washington University School of Medicine study found that AF patients who did yoga in addition to taking medication reported half the number of heart quivers compared with patients who only took meds. While not a cure for AF, regular yoga practice -- at least twice a week for three months -- also improved the subjects' heart health by easing anxiety levels and significantly lowering resting heart rates.
"It doesn't necessarily have to be yoga. Any way you reduce stress is good for the heart," Becker said.
|Be a Friend|
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but togetherness strengthens heart health.
Having a close relationship with another person, be it a friend, lover or relative is so heartwarming it can halve the risk of a heart attack in someone who has already had a heart attack, a 2004 heart study suggests. And one State University of New York at Oswego investigation found that blood pressure dropped when one spent time with a spouse or partner.
Becker pointed out that whether in pairs or in groups, engaging with other people does seem to help the heart, though it's not exactly known why.
"It could be that secure social ties lead to better health habits and less depression," he said. "It could also be due to neurological and hormonal changes that lessen stress and anxiety."
Toxic associations do the heart no favors, though. In one 12-year study, British civil servants in bad relationships were 34 percent more likely to have heart attacks or heart trouble than those in happier relationships.
|Indulge in the Dark|
It's no accident that chocolate hearts are associated with Valentine's Day.
Dark chocolate contains high concentrations of cocoa. Intake of this anti-oxidant rich substance appears to relax blood vessels, lower blood pressure and control blood sugar.
Just don't get carried away. Becker said that a single 1.5 ounce serving of the sweet stuff will bestow all its heart-healthy benefits without adding an overabundance of fat, sugar or calories to your diet.
|Take a Break|
When researchers from the University of South Carolina analyzed the daily movement patterns of adult men, they found that those who were the least active throughout the day had a 64 percent greater risk of dying from heart disease compared with men who reported living a less sedentary lifestyle.
Spending too much time rooted to the couch or chair may pack on unhealthy fat around the heart and lead to less desirable levels of cholesterol, blood sugar, triglycerides and waist size, research suggests. This appears to be true even for people who maintain a regular exercise routine.
However, taking even short breaks can counteract some of sitting's negative impact on heart health, one European Heart Journal report found. Becker agreed.
"Taking advantage of opportunities to move has benefits that are well documented," he said. "Any effort is good, and all efforts count."
|Have a Hearty Salad|
Amp up salads with good-for-the-heart ingredients. Start with a base of leafy greens, an excellent source of vitamins and phytochemicals associated with a lower risk of heart disease and depression. Toss in a half cup of steamed asparagus or a couple of slices of avocado. These are two veggies packed with folate, a vitamin that helps head off blood-vessel inflammation. To lower LDL, or "bad cholesterol," swap out the croutons for a handful of almonds or cranberries. Finally, top it all off with a vinaigrette dressing. Harvard research suggests two tablespoons daily can cut the risk of heart disease in women.
Too much or too little sleep can hurt your heart.
Findings released last year by Chicago Medical School suggest that people who catch fewer than six hours of Zs a night are twice as likely to have a stroke or heart attack, and one-and-a-half times more likely to have congestive heart failure, whereas people who slumber more than eight hours a night are more likely to experience chest pain and coronary artery disease.
Not enough shut-eye seems to trigger the nervous system to release high levels of "fight-or-flight" stress hormones that raise blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar. Short sleepers also tend to be heavier, which can take a toll on the heart.
While it's not clear why hitting the snooze button once too often affects the heart, some studies indicate oversleepers may be susceptible to depression and unmotivated to exercise. Or they may run out of time and energy to keep up with heart-friendly habits.
"Somewhere around eight hours seems optimal," Becker acknowledged. "But sleep alone won't necessarily impact heart health unless it's put in context with nutrition, activity, stress management and all of your other health habits."