As a cardiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute, people come up to me all the time and ask me what they can do to avoid having a heart attack. They commonly phrase their question, “What can I do so I never have to see you in your office?” I absolutely love it when people ask me this type of question as it shows their commitment to living a healthy lifestyle.
Here are five things I share in response, which may help you not only avoid having a heart attack, but live a long and healthy life free from most diseases and disabilities.
1. Get moving
According to the American Heart Association[http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/], only one-third of adults get enough physical activity, which is defined as 150 minutes each week, or a mere 21 minutes a day, of at least moderate activity.
We also have to move throughout the day. A recent study showed that sitting more than three hours a day can shorten your life by two years.
Thus, for my patients I recommend taking 10,000 steps in addition to exercising for 30 minutes a day. Even cardiologists need to get moving more as the average cardiologist only takes about 6,000 steps a day.
The best way to get moving is to use a pedometer. Studies have shown that wearing a pedometer increases the number of steps you take by 2,500 each day. Somehow, the act of wearing a pedometer changes your motivation to move more.
2. Eat a plant-and fish-based diet
If we can focus our diets on fresh whole foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, beans and fish, we’ll dramatically reduce the salt in our diets and we’ll definitely lose weight.
Studies have shown that if you can eat more of these items in your diet, your weight will drop an average of seven pounds without even dieting and your blood pressure will drop 11 points. This type of a diet has been shown to help prevent heart disease, cancer, and dementia — and it can significantly prolong life.
3. Eat an ultra-high fiber diet
Even though the U.S. government only recommends that we should consume 28 grams of fiber every day based on a 2,000-calorie diet, the typical American only gets about 15 grams. These 15 grams are a far cry from the 100-plus grams of fiber our hunter-gatherer ancestors used to eat each day.
A few years ago, researchers wanted to know what would happen to cholesterol levels if participants ate 100 grams of fiber. After just two weeks, the people who were being studied dropped their LDL, or bad cholesterol, by 33 percent. That’s a greater change than what you see with statin cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Even more impressive, other studies have shown that for every seven grams of additional fiber you eat daily, you can drop your heart disease risk by nine percent. If those results can be extrapolated, then eating 100 or more grams of fiber each day essentially eliminates your risk of heart disease.
While I shoot for 100 grams of fiber each day from real food, I’m still not there. For the last year, my daily average was only 86.71 grams. If you want to track your own fiber intake, great apps like Healthwatch 360, My Fitness Pal and Lose It can help you.
It goes without saying that you can’t prevent heart disease with fiber supplements. You have to eat real food. If you’re not used to eating fiber, talk to your doctor first. It may take time for your gut to get used to digesting fiber.
4. Eliminate processed foods and sugar
You couldn’t pick a better recipe to increase high blood pressure and obesity than processed foods. I define processed foods as any food item that’s already prepared, whether it comes in a package, bakery container, soda can, soup can, jar, frozen dinner or pizza box, or salad dressing bottle — plus 99 percent of what you eat at restaurants or fast food places.
Processed foods are packed with salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats. You have to read the labels. I recently looked at a label of “healthy” whole wheat bread. I was surprised to see that two slices had 500 mg of sodium and 12 grams of sugar! It’s a mystery to me why food manufactures feel they need to add huge quantities of salt and three teaspoons of sugar to “healthy” whole wheat bread.
5. Maintain a wellness mindset
I can’t overstate the link between emotional health and heart disease. For years, it’s been shown that anger, depression, and anxiety are all strong risk factors for heart disease.
The same is true with heart attacks. Did you know that maintaining a positive outlook on life, feeling happy, and managing stress have all been shown to help prevent heart attacks? Even yoga, which is a great way to manage stress and improve your mood, has recently been shown to decrease the likelihood of atrial fibrillation by 50 percent.
Whatever you do to improve your mood and manage stress can have a huge benefit on your health. While physical activity can be especially effective in helping you maintain a wellness mindset, activities like these can help, too:
- Spend time in nature. Go into the mountains or even outside. Being outdoors has been shown to improve one’s well-being.
- Keep a gratitude journal. This can be as simple as writing down three things you’re grateful for in your life each day.
- Invest more in the relationships in your life. Humans are social creatures, and the more meaningful relationships we have, the healthier we are. Look for opportunities to spend more time with others.
- Find ways to serve others. As we give ourselves to others for a greater purpose, we feel happier and our health will improve.
- Meditate. Meditation, in whatever form, can have a profound, relaxing effect, which is very beneficial to the cardiovascular system.
Remember, making changes in your life takes time and effort. These steps may be hard in the beginning, but they get easier the more you make them part of your daily routine. The good news? Your heart’s future will be better for it. Good luck!