As a cardiologist at the Intermountain Heart Institute at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, I get the great pleasure of having people come up to me all the time and ask me what they can do to “protect their hearts." For example, I was at a social function yesterday and someone asked me, “What can I do so that I never have to see you in your office?” I absolutely love it when people ask me this type of a question as it shows their commitment to living a healthy lifestyle.
Step 1: Move Your Body
The first and most important step is to be physically active each and every day of our lives. This means 30 minutes of physical activity of at least moderate intensity each day and being physically active throughout the day. The last part, being physically active throughout the day, is particularly important. Studies show that if we sit more than 3 hours a day (the average American sits for 8 hours a day!) then we shorten our lives by 2 years.
Moreover, if we then come home after working and then watch TV for more than 2 hours a day then we shorten our lives another one and a half years! What these studies show is that even if we are 100% faithful and work out every day of our lives if we then “hit the gym” every day but yet have a desk job and sit all day, we are damaging our health and shortening our lives. If we have a desk job we need to get up, walk around, or stretch at least every hour throughout the day.
If we can just master the habit of daily physical activity then everything else will usually take care of itself. Studies show that people who commit to daily physical activity tend to make healthier food choices, are less stressed, have better relationships, and are less likely to engage in harmful habits such as smoking or excessive alcohol use.
All of these “additional benefits” come without even trying. I like to call it the “exercise bonus”. Of note, I have yet to meet a patient in my busy practice over age 40 who smokes and rigorously exercises faithfully. These two behaviors are not compatible. It seems strange, but if we can just master this one habit of daily physical activity, our health will then improve on many different levels.
Despite all of these benefits of daily physical activity, I am still amazed that only 1 in 3 adults in the US get even 20 minutes of daily physical activity. Our entire culture is designed to have us just sit, sit, sit. When I encourage my patients to become physically active each day I hear many excuses as to why they are unwilling to move their bodies. The two biggest excuses I hear is that “I don’t have time” or “I don’t like to exercise”.
We really don’t have time not to exercise. A large study showed that for every one hour of physical activity it gave them 19 extra hours of life! Another study showed that being physically active increases your salary by up to 10%! This is an incredible return on investment as being physically active actually gives you more time and money.
The second excuse I generally hear is that “I don’t like to exercise”. The problem here is that I believe most people think of “exercising” as going to the gym. I agree, I hate to go to the gym. For me, I have to be outside rather than confined to an indoor gym. I climb mountains, downhill ski, cross-country ski, play various sports with my kids or mountain bike on most days. As a last resort I will use an exercise machine indoors. Indeed, being physically active means walking, hiking, biking, skiing, gardening—basically anything that allows us to move our bodies. Find some things you enjoy and then do it every day. Our bodies were designed to move!
Step 2: Eat Wisely
The second step to avoiding heart disease and achieving overall health is to make wise food choices. Fad diets don’t work. The key is to make wise food choices every day for the rest of our lives. This is going to seem strange but I have a confession to make. For many years as a practicing cardiologist I would have a donut, bagel with cream cheese, and a diet coke each morning for breakfast. Even more amazing is that all of these food choices are provided for free to doctors in most of the hospitals I have worked in throughout my career. Imagine my complete surprise when my body started falling apart a few years ago.
Wise food choices means eating primarily a plant based diet. We need to focus on fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, and fish. Animal meat should be eaten very sparingly, if at all. Regularly eating animal meat shortens our lives on average by two years and puts us at risk for heart disease, cancer, and many other ailments. Clean water is the best thing for us to drink. In addition, we need to avoid processed foods, soda pop, energy drinks, fast foods, and sweets. There is, however, one “heart healthy” sweet—dark chocolate, if it is eaten in moderation.
I know this seems difficult to do, but it can be done. Through much struggle over the course of a year, I was able to forever give up the donuts, bagels with cream cheese, diet cokes and faithfully adhere to a plant based diet with occasional fish while avoiding processed foods and sweets with the exception of my daily dose of dark chocolate. The results have been amazing, my weight dropped nearly 30 pounds without ever being hungry, my blood pressure dropped 25 points, and my total cholesterol dropped 100 points! All of this came 100% naturally without the use of any medications at all. Best of all, I feel the best I have felt in years and have far more energy than I had 10 years ago.
Step 3: Invest in Relationships
The third key to avoiding heart problems is actually an exciting new area of research that may come as a surprise to most people—invest in the relationships all around us. This means giving of ourselves and spending time with our families, friends, neighbors, fellow church goers, co-workers, etc. We are not really sure how this benefits the heart, but it is likely that by giving of ourselves, it gives us a deeper sense of life purpose, reduces stress and anxiety, and brings happiness.
For example, it is well known that being married offers a protective effect to the heart. This is especially true for men. Depending on the study, married people are up to 50% less likely to develop heart disease. Surprisingly, having children was shown to also shown to be helpful in death from heart conditions. Even having a roommate has been shown to be better for your heart than living alone. We are social creatures and being socially connected is good for our hearts. The more socially connected to others the better for our hearts.
Being connected with others has been shown to be one of the most important things we can do to relieve stress. Stress is another big cause of heart problems. Indeed, a recently published study of nearly 119,000 patients from Columbia University showed that those people who perceived “stress” were 27% more likely to develop heart disease. The risk to your heart of perceiving that you are “stressed” is the equivalent of smoking 5 cigarettes a day!
Lastly, as we give of ourselves and invest in the lives of others it gives a strong sense of life purpose. A purpose much bigger than the day-to-day struggles we deal with each day. This sense of life purpose or meaning can pay tremendous dividends to our hearts. In fact, studies have shown that having a life purpose or mission decreases your risk of heart disease by 40-50%. Clearly, getting out of our own lives and investing in others will literally save our own hearts.
- BMJ Open 2012;2:e000828
- Diabetolgia 2012;55:2895-2905
- Am J Prev Med. 2012 Jun;42(6):571-8
- Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 May ; 42(5): 879–885
- Prev Sci. 2012 April; 13(2): 183–195
- Public Health Rep. 1985 Mar-Apr;100(2):172-80
- Population Health Management 2012;15:276–286
- Obes Rev. 2011 October ; 12(10): 800–812
- Am J Prev Med. 2013 Jan;44(1):23-9
- Lancet. 2011 Oct 1;378(9798):1244-53
- Journal of Labor Research June 2012, Volume 33, Issue 2, pp 225-250
- International Journal of Epidemiology 2007;36:1255–1264
- Prognosis of acute coronary events is worse in patients living alone: the FINAMI myocardial infarction register.Eur J Prev Cardiol. 2013 Jan 30. [Epub ahead of print]
- Eur J Cardiovasc Prev Rehabil. 2008 Oct;15(5):577-82
- PLoS Med. 2010 Jul 27;7(7):e1000316
- Am J Cardiol. 2012 Dec 15;110(12):1711-6
- J Epidemiol. 2008;18(5):191-6