How to Keep a Healthy Heart Through Diet and Exercise
By: John Agwunobi, M.D., M.B.A., M.P.H., Co-President and Chief Health & Nutrition Officer
Did you know that heart disease is the number one cause of death globally? According to the World Health Organization, around 17.9 million people died from cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) in 2016. Of these deaths, 85 percent are due to heart attack and stroke.
Improving Heart Health Is All About Behavior
An unhealthy diet and physical inactivity are some of the most important behavioral risk factors for heart disease. Keeping your heart healthy is largely a matter of choice, and it begins with three simple steps:
- Be Active – just 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise can dramatically improve your prospects for cardiovascular wellness.
- Eat Healthy – more nutrition, more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-sodium foods, and low-fat dairy, add up to a heart-healthy diet.
- Achieve and Maintain a Healthy Weight – if you’re overweight or obese, getting into the habit of shaving off a few pounds can significantly improve your cardiovascular system.
All this is not rocket science, but it’s not easy to commit to either. Applying these three aspects requires shifts in routine and regimen, and it demands a level of discipline and focus that many people’s lives, jobs, or family situations may not allow.
Still, though, we have to get back to the basics and encourage as many of our friends and neighbors to get on board.
Make Physical Activity a Priority
It’s too easy to make excuses, thinking you’re too tired or busy to work out. But physical activity can be as simple as 30 minutes of walking daily.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) laid out a wide range of benefits of regular exercise. Having more physical activity can help you:
- Control your weight.
- Reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
- Reduce your risk of some cancers.
- Strengthen your bones and muscles.
- Improve your mood and mental health.
- Improve your ability to do daily activities and prevent falls if you’re an older adult.
- Increase your chances of living longer.
You would think that given its benefits, people would strive to integrate exercise into their daily routine. However, 1.4 billion people – that’s 28 percent of adults globally – are not exercising.
This might be in part due to modern, urban lifestyles where work and transportation are largely sedentary. But we must still find ways to be physically active. Social support can play a big role in helping us achieve that goal.
Take nutrition clubs for example. These are clubs operated by Herbalife Nutrition independent distributors, where like-minded people come together to support each other in their journey towards a healthier life.
They offer a variety of physical activities, combined with balanced nutrition options. Social connection and encouragement can motivate people to stick to their fitness routine. It can transform exercise from something people dread to something they actually desire.
Make it your purpose to find an activity you love – cardio drumming, running, lifting weights – and a fitness buddy to practice it with.
Eat for Heart Health
To be good to your heart, you’ll need to eat the right food. A healthy, nutritious diet is about what we choose to buy at the grocery store, cook at home, or order at a restaurant.
It’s made up of the right balance between macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals. It consists of fruits and vegetables, lean meats, nuts, fish, soy protein, plants, and fiber. You should also avoid soft drinks and processed foods high in sodium.
In case you’re wondering what that looks like, registered dietitian Susan Bowerman, Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife Nutrition, laid out a few examples of the types of meals you can easily make at home, such as:
A Colorful Salad
Bright orange carrots, red tomatoes, and deep-green spinach owe their colors to a group of heart-healthy antioxidant pigments, called carotenoids. For added benefit, toss in some avocado and dress your salad with a little olive oil. Since carotenoids are fat-soluble, the addition of small amounts of heart-healthy fats to your salad will help your body absorb these beneficial compounds from the vegetables.
Cooked beans make a heart-healthy addition, too, since their water-soluble fiber can help to keep cholesterol levels in check.
Fresh fish is generally low in total fat and saturated fat. It’s also one of the best sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids which help to control the levels of certain fats in the blood, such as triglycerides and cholesterol.
Tree nuts like almonds, walnuts, and pistachios are rich in compounds called phytosterols that can help keep cholesterol in check. Try toasting them lightly in the oven or a dry frying pan, it brings out their natural flavor. Then, you can sprinkle them on top of some steamed veggies for a great side dish, or add them to your salad.
And for dessert, have a little bit of chocolate. Naturally occurring compounds in cocoa, called flavonoids, act as antioxidants. The darker the chocolate, the more flavonoids you get.
So, have a bit of dark chocolate to finish your meal, or drizzle some melted bittersweet chocolate over fresh berries. The natural red-purple pigments that give berries their beautiful color act as antioxidants, too.
Maintain a Healthy Weight for a Healthy Heart
Belly fat is also linked to higher heart disease risk. A study that involved about 500,000 people, aged 40 to 69, in the United Kingdom found that:
- Women who carried more weight around their midsection had a 10 to 20 percent greater risk of heart attack than women who were just overall heavier.
- A larger waist-to-hip ratio, in particular, appeared to have a higher heart attack risk factor for women than for men. Compared with BMI, the waist-to-hip ratio was 18 percent stronger as a heart attack predictor in women, compared to 6% factor in men.
You can lower the number of calories you take in by:
- Eating smaller portion sizes.
- Limiting between-meal snacks.
- Limiting foods and drinks that are high in calories, fat, and/or added sugars, and that provide few nutrients.
- Limit your alcohol intake.
Even modest weight loss (5 to 10 percent of your total body weight) has important health benefits, such as lower blood pressure, decreased blood cholesterol, and reduced blood sugars. With significant weight loss, people report improvements in physical health, energy levels, physical mobility, general mood, and self-confidence.
Diets can work for losing extra weight, but to keep that weight off, we should think about an overall healthy lifestyle. The changes you make today can strengthen your heart for the long term.