By Michael A. Smith, MD
But this might surprise you: Less than 2% of Americans meet the seven recommended heart-healthy habits. These healthy habits could dramatically reduce the risk of heart disease if we practiced them.
Fewer People Practice Healthy Habits1The new research shows that the number of people who follow all seven heart-healthy habits recommended by the American Heart Association — like eating a healthy diet, being physically active, and having normal blood pressure — has actually declined in recent years.
Does this surprise you? Before you answer, remember this fact: We spend billions of research dollars on cardiovascular disease, yet it remains our number-one killer. Why is that? We know more about heart disease and how to treat than ever before, and yet it kills more people every year than any other disease including cancer.
Could our bad lifestyle habits really impact heart disease this much? Maybe all the research in the world doesn’t matter if we continue to practice unhealthy habits. The research, published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association, followed a group of nearly 45,000 adults who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1988–2010.
The results found that the percentage of Americans who followed all of the health behaviors dropped from 2% in 1988–1994 to 1.2% in 2005–2010. And that’s with more research, more awareness and more pharmaceuticals and procedures to treat heart disease. It looks like our bad habits reign supreme when it comes to heart disease.
The Seven Healthy HabitsThe seven habits of a healthy heart seem like they’re no brainers. But let’s be honest with ourselves and ask, “Is this really a habit of mine?” Here are the seven behaviors that support a healthy heart:
- Not smoking
- Being physically active
- Working to have normal blood pressure (under 120/80, optimal is 110/70)
- Working to have healthy fasting blood-sugar levels (below 100, optimal is 70–85)
- Working to have healthy total cholesterol (below 200, optimal is 160–180)
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Eating a healthy diet
Breaking Unhealthy Habits Reaps Great RewardsNot surprisingly, the results showed that the more heart-healthy goals people met, the lower their risk of heart disease and death. Meeting a higher number of the good habits was also associated with a lower risk of cancer.
For instance, people who met six of the seven goals had a 76% lower risk of heart-related death and a 51% lower risk of death from any cause, compared with those who met one or fewer.
Here’s what we suggest before going any further. Take a habit inventory. Which ones do you do, and which ones don’t you do? This is the best place to start.
Strategies for Breaking Unhealthy Heart HabitsWhat we’re going to do now is look at each healthy habit and our suggestions for helping you make it a reality in your own life.
1. Don't smoke or stop smoking — obviously, don’t start smoking. But if you have already, take heart in the fact that millions of people every year kick the habit. It’s not easy, but you can do it. Try these suggestions.
- Nicotine patches work for many people. A step down approach seems to work best. This is where you start with a higher dose patch and decrease the patch dose each week for 9 weeks.
- Join a support group. The group should meet on a regular basis. From the group, develop a relationship with someone that not only encourages you, but also holds you accountable.
- Replace the bad habit with a healthy one. This is extremely important because when you’re faced with a trigger in life that normally leads to lighting up, it’s now replaced with walking, cleaning or anything that is less detrimental to your health.
- Walk before and after dinner.
- Ride a bike, especially long rides on the weekends.
- Playing catch or Frisbee or tag with your kids (dogs work here too, cats not so much).
- Swim. Play “Marco Polo” in the pool with kids. Try water aerobics.
- Play softball or tag football.
4. Have optimal fasting blood sugar. Stop eating so many things that are white: white rice, white pasta, white sugar. Being more active is a big plus here as well. Instead of having sugar build up in your system, you’ll burn it with activity. Nutrients to consider include cinnamon, chromium, apple cider vinegar, and magnesium.
5. Have healthy total cholesterol. More fruits and vegetables and less animal meat is key to following this healthy habit.
6. Maintain a healthy weight. Every habit discussed so far will positively affect your weight. And don’t forget to do this … eat less. We know that’s easier said than done, but it’s a true statement. To help control your appetite, consider extracts of saffron, African mango and pine nuts.
7. Eat a healthy diet. How? Colorful fruits and vegetables, essential oils, seeds and legumes. Eating less bread and pasta will help too.
Let’s compare a typical American dinner plate to a Mediterranean dinner plate.
A Typical American Dinner Plate:
A Typical Mediterranean Dinner Plate:
Notice anything different?
- Yang, Q. Journal of the American Medical Association, published online March 16, 2012. News release, American Medical Association.
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