7-Day Kickstart Plan to Improve Heart Health
Even if you’re young and relatively healthy, you may still have risk factors for heart disease. About 40 percent of all adults under the age of 40 have obesity, for example, and more than half of all adults under 60 have high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Now here’s the good news: “There’s a lot you can do, no matter what your age, to reduce your risk of heart disease,” says Alon Gitig, MD, director of cardiology at Mount Sinai Westchester in Scarsdale, New York.
This seven-day kickstart plan can help. By dedicating one day each week to incorporating a new heart-healthy behavior, you’ll make positive changes quickly without getting overwhelmed. Give it a try — and by the end of the week, you’ll be well on your way to living a more heart-conscious life.
Day 1: Walk Briskly for 22 Minutes
That exact amount might sound strange, but it’s based in science, Dr. Gitig says. “We know that 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week is very clearly associated with a significant drop in risk of heart attack,” he says. “Divide that by seven, and you get around 21.4 minutes, or close to 22.”
The key, he says, is to make sure you’re walking enough to pass the talk test, which means you can still hold a conversation with a friend, but it’s brisk enough that you can’t talk too much, or sing.
If you’re pressed for time, try to squeeze it in during your morning or evening commute. For example, get off a train stop or two early and walk, advises cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of Atria NYC and a clinical associate professor of medicine at New York University. “It gives you time to think, relax and be outdoors, all things that relieve stress and also help your heart,” she explains. (Dr. Goldberg herself walks to work and back every day, which is 3 miles daily.)
If you’ve got time to walk more, go for it: New research shows that the more you can do, the better it is for your ticker. A January 2022 study in PLOS Medicine found that people who were the most active reduced their risk of developing heart disease by more than 50 percent.
Day 2: Stop Screen Time an Hour Before Bed
There’s no doubt getting enough sleep is important for heart health: skimping on zzzs has been linked both to high blood pressure and weight gain, both of which raise the risk of heart disease.
“There are a couple reasons why: One, impaired sleep raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which raises blood pressure and increases inflammation that’s bad for your heart,” Dr. Gitig explains. “But if you’re sleep-deprived and tired, you also don’t have the energy level to take on a healthy lifestyle, which is also important.”
Unfortunately, about half of all adults experience occasional insomnia, according to the CDC, which can derail even the best of sleep intentions. That’s why Dr. Gitig recommends turning off all your screens — computer, phone, tablet, TV — an hour before bed. Research shows the blue light from these screens suppresses melatonin, a hormone that’s essential to your sleep-wake cycle, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “This can prevent you from feeling sleepy at bedtime,” Dr. Gitig says.
Day 3: Swap Your Morning Bagel for Oatmeal Topped With Blueberries and Almonds
Opt for oatmeal in the morning — your heart will thank you.
A medium bagel has more than 250 calories and over 50 grams of carbs, which isn’t a great way to start your day, says Lisa Freed, MD, FACC, director of the Women’s Heart and Vascular Program at Yale New Haven Hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. If you add on a couple tablespoons of cream cheese, you’re looking at roughly an extra 100 calories and 6 grams of saturated fat, per the USDA.
Oatmeal is a much better, heart-healthy breakfast option, Dr. Freed says, as it’s high in soluble fiber, a type of fiber that’s been shown to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. Because it’s lower in carbs, it will also help keep blood sugar levels stable, so you don’t become ravenous mid-morning and hit the vending machine.
A December 2019 study in Stroke found that just replacing one breakfast a week with oatmeal instead of eggs or white bread was linked to a lower risk of stroke.
Dr. Freed suggests topping oatmeal with anthocyanin-rich blueberries, which help lower the risk of heart disease. You can also add a handful of almonds for some satiating, heart-healthy monounsaturated fat.
Day 4: Swap Your Beef Burger for a Veggie Burger
You may feel like it doesn’t count if you substitute an Impossible Burger for a Whopper at Burger King, but give yourself some credit.
“While many of these products have high levels of saturated fat and are highly processed, there is still research to show they’re better for your health than their animal alternatives,” Joel Kahn, MD, an integrative cardiologist in Bingham Farms, Michigan, tells LIVESTRONG.com. “Anytime you substitute a plant-based meal for a meat-based one, you help your heart.”
When people swapped in veggie burgers for their regular meat-based burgers twice a week for eight weeks, they lost 2 pounds and saw their “bad” cholesterol drop by 10 points, compared to a control group, according to an April 2020 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. They also had lower levels of trimethylamine N-oxide, a substance that may be linked to risk of heart disease.
In general, going vegetarian or vegan is good for your ticker. An August 2019 study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of dying from heart disease by almost a third.
But that can be hard to stick to, notes Dr. Gitig, who recommends instead that you aim to make about 75 percent of your diet plant-based foods such as fruits, veggies, seeds, nuts and whole grains. “Just cutting back a little can move the goal posts in the right direction,” he says.
Day 5: Download a Meditation App
Make time to meditate, even if it’s just a few minutes each day.
There’s a ton of research to show meditation helps reduce the risk of heart disease. A September 2020 study in the American Journal of Cardiology looked at over 60,000 people and found that those who regularly meditated had lower rates of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke and heart disease compared with those who didn’t meditate.
“It helps with stress, which is a huge driver of risk of heart disease because it raises blood pressure and ramps up inflammation,” Dr. Gitig says. He personally recommends two meditation apps: Calm and Insight Timer. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s five minutes or 10 minutes, as long as you try to do it every day and find some relaxation exercises that click with you,” he says.
For those stressful moments when you don’t have easy access to an app — for example, you’re stuck in traffic, or you’re in a stressful situation at work — Dr. Gitig recommends closing your eyes for a minute or two and practicing belly breathing.
“When we’re stressed, our tendency is to breathe more shallowly, which ramps up stress hormones,” he explains. Close your mouth and take a slow, deep breath in through your nose (you can put your hands on your belly so you feel that it’s filled with air). Then blow all of the air out slowly through your mouth and feel your belly deflate.
Day 6: Meet a Friend for Coffee
Over the years, numerous studies have shown the importance of social support when it comes to reducing the risk of heart disease.
A July 2019 study in Menopause, for example, followed post-menopausal people for over a decade and found that strong friendships and social support reduced their risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
“Social support provides a buffer against stress and also helps to prevent loneliness, which we know is a risk factor for heart disease,” Dr. Goldberg explains. If it’s hard to get together in person, FaceTime counts, she adds.
Day 7: Make a Dentist Appointment
It may seem surprising, but study after study has found that people with gum disease have higher rates of heart disease (including heart attack and stroke) than those with healthy gums and chompers, according to the American Academy of Periodontology.
“One theory is that the bacteria that cause gum disease travel to blood vessels throughout the body, where they cause blood vessel inflammation and damage,” Dr. Gitig says. “It may also be that the inflammation in the mouth sets off a cascade of vascular damage throughout the body, including the blood vessels and heart.”
The American Dental Association recommends seeing your dentist at least once or twice a year, but you may have to go more frequently if you already have gum disease. And of course, you’ll want to brush and floss in between visits.