FROM 1911 TO 1952, Personal Health merit badge featured a heart motif. Maybe the Boy Scouts of America should reissue that old badge just for Scouters as an extra incentive to take better care of their tickers. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States, accounting for one in five deaths annually.
You may think you’re doing right by your heart because you don’t smoke and you haven’t had a hot dog with the works since getting off the trail last summer with your troop, but your body’s engine deserves more attention.
“Your ability to control your lifestyle choices gives you a great deal of authority over the condition of your arteries and your heart,” says renowned cardiologist and researcher H. Robert Superko, M.D., author of Before the Heart Attacks.
Here are eight simple things you can do to keep your heart healthy:
1. Read Homer. A study in the American Journal of Physiology in 2003 found that reading ancient poetry may help your heart. In the study, 20 men and women in their 40s were asked to read passages from Homer’s The Odyssey while having their hearts and lungs monitored. As they read the dactylic hexameter verses, heart and respiration rates slowed and synchronized. Researchers say the results are similar to the effects of reciting the Rosary devotion or yoga’s “om” mantra. Slow breathing and heart rate have been linked to lower blood pressure and helping the heart and lungs work more efficiently.
2. Sleep longer. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that every extra hour of sleep that middle-age adults add to their nightly average lowers risk of artery hardening by 33 percent. More sleep helps reduce the stress hormones your body secretes when you are tired; these chemicals constrict arteries and cause inflammation, which encourages calcification of the heart.
3. Drink more water. Researchers at Loma Linda University report that people who drank five eight-ounce glasses of water daily were about half as likely to die of coronary heart disease as those who drank two glasses or fewer. The researchers say that drinking water appears to benefit heart health as much as stopping smoking by fighting dehydration, which elevates blood viscosity, a heart-disease risk factor.
4. Snack less. Avoiding salty chips and high-calorie cookies and cakes can have a dramatic impact on your weight and heart health. Try this trick Dr. Superko recommends to his patients: Keep a bag of baby carrots in the fridge. Make a deal with yourself: You can have an unhealthy snack, like a chocolate chip cookie, as long as you eat six baby carrots first. Like magic, eating the carrots often crushes the craving for the cookie.
5. Eat oats. You eat oatmeal for breakfast on the trail. Get in the habit while at home. Oats contain beta-glucan, a type of fiber that surrounds bad cholesterol in your gut and escorts it out of the body. Dozens of studies prove the cholesterol-lowering benefits of fiber-rich foods such as oats, vegetables, beans, apples, pears, barley, and prunes.
6. Go easy on salt. The average American swallows 3,400 milligrams of sodium a day, more than 1,000 milligrams more than he or she should. Keeping sodium to less than 2,300 milligrams per day can lower your risk of heart disease by up to 9 percent, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. Achieve this by eating fewer canned soups and processed foods like hot dogs and lunchmeat, bacon, potato chips, and frozen dinners. Rinse canned beans and tuna to remove much of their sodium. Put the saltshaker away. Eat potassium-rich foods such as bananas, oranges, potatoes, and spinach, all of which help reduce blood pressure.
7. Walk this way. Exercise controls your weight, which reduces the strain on your heart and lowers your risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. It makes your arteries more flexible. And it is a stress release. The government recommends getting 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise most days of the week.
But that doesn’t mean you have to join a gym. Even walking, which is free and can be done anywhere, is all you need. But you must do it briskly to raise your heart rate (and huff and puff a little) to get the benefits. Even three 10-minute walks a day is a good start for heart health.
8. Ace a test. To forecast heart problems, see your doctor for an annual checkup. At the minimum, your checkup should include a review of your family health history and a standard lipid profile, measuring total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, HDH (“good”) cholesterol, and triglycerides. Also ask your doctor about a baseline electrocardiogram or the more advanced blood tests: Lipoprotein-a, high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, and homocysteine, which look for markers of heart disease.
Many deaths can be prevented if people made healthy lifestyle changes and more doctors practiced aggressive prevention, says cardiologist Arthur Agatston, M.D., author of The South Beach Heart Program.
Jeff Csatari’s new book is the The New Abs Diet Cookbook, co-written with Daniel Zinczenko, available at menshealth.com/abs-diet-cookbook.