Written by Myles Spar
Posted on: February 6, 2019
The heart is one of my primary areas of interest as an integrative physician specializing in men’s health, so I’ve written a lot about it—you can read about heart attack and stroke prevention here, for example, or see my list of favorite heart health supplements here.
Why am I so hung up on heart health? I think the numbers speak for themselves. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among men in the US, accounting for one in every four male deaths. What’s even more frightening is that half of men who die suddenly of coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms.
It’s actually not the scary statistics that drive my interest in heart health—it’s the fact that there’s so much you can do to prevent becoming a statistic yourself. Given that it’s Heart Health Month, I thought I’d suggest some of my favorite heart-strengthening activities.
Eat More Plants
To strengthen your heart, fill your plate with vegetables and fruit. Researchers studied former vegetarians to determine how eating and/or avoiding certain foods affected their cardiovascular health. They found that, among lapsed vegetarians who started eating meat, the odds of developing heart disease increased by 146 percent. The former vegetarians also experienced a 152 percent increase in stroke risk and a 231 percent increase in odds for weight gain. Transitioning from vegetarianism to meat-eating over the course of 12 years was associated with a decrease in life expectancy of 3.6 years.
While eating meat has obviously been shown to harm the heart, eating veggies and fruits seems to have the opposite effect. A diet consisting of whole, plant-based foods is the only one that’s ever been shown to reverse heart disease. For more on how this way of eating can benefit your cardiovascular health, see my post here.
Lower Your Stress Levels
Since chronic stress has been linked to heart disease, it’s important to find ways to manage it. As I explain here, I love meditation for stress relief. This practice of focusing on the present has tons of science supporting its efficacy. In one study, people with generalized anxiety who followed a stress-reduction program based on mindfulness were considerably less anxious than those in a control group who were taught other stress management techniques. Another study found health care professionals who participated in a mindfulness program reported significantly less stress and more self-compassion compared to a control group.
Interested in learning more about meditation but not sure where to start? Check out my list of smartphone apps to help you stay mindful.
Exercising regularly is one of the best things you can do to improve heart health. You should aim for thirty minutes a day, five times a week of physical activity—the American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise (or a combination of the two).
In addition to getting your heart pumping, exercise also lowers your levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. One study found physical activity can even re-organize your brain so it responds less to stress. When mice were divided into two groups (one with free access to a running wheel and one without) and exposed to stress, the brains of mice who were allowed to run experienced a jump in neurons responsible for shutting down excitement in the the part of the brain known to regulate anxiety. Neurons in the runner mice also released more gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a calming neurotransmitter.
Have Some Wine
Talk about a fun heart-strengthening activity! Not only does alcohol in general bump up your HDL (good) cholesterol, research supports the moderate consumption of red wine for heart health. Antioxidants in red wine called polyphenols may help protect the lining of blood vessels in your heart. A specific polyphenol, resveratrol, could also reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol and prevent clotting.
Moderation is obviously key, but feel free to enjoy a glass or two of red wine knowing you’re boosting your cardiovascular health in the process. See my post here for more healthy alcohol options.
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About Myles Spar, MD
Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.