If you want to live a long and healthy life, you have to take care of your heart. This becomes even more important as you age, but being proactive makes a significant difference in the likelihood of developing problems later on. While your risk of heart disease might be increased due to genetics, your lifestyle and habits make a major impact. Three habits in particular are known to make your risk of heart problems skyrocket: smoking, excessive drinking, and a sedentary lifestyle.
Smoking is commonly mentioned as detrimental to your health in many ways, but people often don’t realize how many ways smoking damages the heart in particular. Carbon monoxide, one of the hundreds of chemicals found in cigarettes, inhibits your blood vessels’ ability to take in oxygen. When your body isn’t getting enough oxygen, your heart can enlarge in response. An enlarged heart has to work harder and is less efficient at pumping blood, putting stress on your whole cardiovascular system. This can lead to heart failure, increased risk of blood clots, and total cardiac arrest.
Smoking has also been shown to elevate the heart rate, increasing your risk for developing a heart arrhythmia or suffering from a stroke.
You may have heard that a little alcohol can be good for your heart, and that’s true. A glass of red wine or certain types of beer have been shown to elevate the number of high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) in your blood. You may have seen HDLs referred to as “good cholesterol” because they remove cholesterol buildup from your arteries and lower your risk of clotting, stroke, heart attack, etc. But it’s important to differentiate between a single glass of wine as a nightcap and continual excessive alcohol consumption. Heavy drinking has been linked to a number of heart-related issues, including cardiomyopathy, a disorder that reduces the heart’s ability to effectively pump blood.
The type of alcohol matters as well. If someone is habitually drinking a lot of beer, for example, that accounts for a huge intake of calories. These added calories can quickly lead to obesity, which puts a lot of strain on the heart as well.
Just like excessive alcohol can lead to obesity, a sedentary lifestyle can as well — and obesity increases your risk of heart problems. Not getting enough exercise leads to weight gain, which causes the heart to have to work much harder. It constricts blood vessels, elevates blood pressure, and increases the risk for stroke, heart attack, and diabetes.
This can be a hard one to remedy, though, as many Americans have jobs that require sitting at a desk for eight hours a day. And after a long day of work, we are mentally exhausted. But your body still needs to move and be used in order to stay healthy.
What can you do to improve your heart health?
This is certainly easier said than done, but the negative impact of smoking on your body is astronomical, beyond just your heart. It affects your lungs and brain, and it increases your risk of several cancers. The good news is your body begins healing almost immediately after you quit.
According to the American Cancer Society, your body begins recovering within minutes of your last cigarette, starting with your blood pressure and heart rate lowering. Just 12 hours later, your carbon monoxide levels return to normal. After a couple of weeks, your circulation and lung function can begin to improve. Fast forward to a year later, and your risk of coronary heart disease is half that of someone who still smokes, and your risk for a heart attack has decreased drastically. Gradually your levels of HDL (the “good cholesterol” that removes plaque buildup in your veins and arteries) return to normal, blood regains its normal consistency and your blood vessels regain their elasticity.
Quitting is not easy, but it’s worth it.
Watch what you drink and how much you consume.
Unlike smoking, you don’t have to quit drinking altogether. A social drink out with friends or a glass of wine (or two) with dinner is okay. Habits are what you do on a regular, continual basis, so a general rule is to simply make your alcohol-free days more frequent than the days you drink. But be sure to avoid binge drinking entirely. Even one session of heavy intoxication can cause you to develop a heart arrhythmia. If you find you need help cutting back on alcohol, consider reaching out to your doctor or a local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Move your body.
The obesity rate in the U.S. in 2018 was 32 percent, which had increased about 13 percent since 1997. In addition to eating a more balanced diet, we have to move our bodies more often. It’s certainly difficult to adopt a full workout regimen immediately, especially if you’ve lived most of your life without one. But just getting up and moving throughout the day can make a big difference. Start small with a morning walk or a 15-minute yoga video online. Try a step counter and set a daily goal for yourself. (Maybe strike up a friendly competition with a friend!) Another great way to avoid a sedentary lifestyle is to get a standing desk.
Going all out and getting a gym membership is great, but find what works for you and stick with it. If you put high expectations on yourself to work out five days a week, for example, it can become easy to miss the mark, feel like a failure, and quit. Just focus on being more physically active than you are now and gradually keep moving forward each day. Celebrate small victories and shoot for incremental improvement. It will become easier the more you do it. And remember, health is a long-term goal!
Get Screened for Heart Disease
There are several risk factors for heart disease. Even if you don’t smoke, drink heavily, or live a sedentary lifestyle, it’s a good idea to get screened for heart and cardiovascular diseases if you exhibit any of these additional risk factors:
Life Line Screening offers simple, non-invasive screenings for atrial fibrillation, carotid artery disease, peripheral arterial disease, abdominal aortic disease, and other cardiovascular conditions. If you exhibit any of the above risk factors, talk to your doctor about getting screened.
The Bottom Line
The top three unhealthiest heart habits are smoking, excessive drinking, and a sedentary lifestyle. The good news is, with some personal commitment and support from others, the negative effects of these habits can be reversed. Your heart health is important, so be proactive about keeping it in shape.