Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) cause 17 million deaths globally every year, making it the leading cause of death around the world.
The cardiovascular system—which includes your heart and blood vessels—distributes oxygen through the body and removes waste. Every cell in the body depends on this process to run smoothly.
Definition of cardiovascular health
Your cardiovascular health refers to the health of your heart and blood vessels, according to the National Association of Chronic Disease Directors.
Many people experience cardiovascular health issues at some point during their lives. The heart and blood vessels are complicated, and it’s easy for small issues to grow into something larger and more concerning over time. Some people are more genetically prone to heart issues, while others develop heart problems due to environmental and lifestyle factors. Often, it’s a combination of genetics and lifestyle that lead to cardiovascular health problems.
Lifestyle issues that can contribute to cardiovascular problems include:
- Chronic stress
- Sedentary lifestyle
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
When people are aware that they’re living with conditions that make them more likely to develop cardiovascular issues, they’re able to take steps toward improving their heart health, often avoiding invasive procedures. It’s important that you work closely with your doctor to manage your health to avoid heart damage.
While all cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) involve the heart and/or blood vessels, there are several different types of CVDs, including:
- Deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism: Issues involving blood clots that develop in the legs, which later may dislodge and move to the heart and/or the lungs.
- Congenital heart disease: A birth defect that affects the way the heart functions. People with congenital heart defects may be asymptomatic, or may require surgery to repair structural heart issues.
- Coronary heart disease: A common type of heart disease that affects the blood vessels that direct blood to the heart.
- Peripheral arterial disease: A type of heart disease that affects blood vessels that supply blood to the arms and legs.
- Cerebrovascular disease: A type of heart disease that affects the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain.
- Rheumatic heart disease: Damage caused to the heart by rheumatic fever/streptococcal bacteria.
Some people who are at risk for cardiovascular issues never develop a problem, while others who are at low risk experience cardiovascular issues. Healthy lifestyle choices, including getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and tracking your health data, can go a long way in helping you ward off a cardiac event.
Now, let’s take a look at steps that you can take to boost your cardiovascular health.
How to improve cardiovascular health
If you’ve recently learned that you’re at risk for the development of cardiovascular disease, it’s important to take the steps necessary to boost the health of your heart. While it can be scary to get the news that your health is at risk, understanding and following through with lifestyle changes can go a long way in restoring your heart’s health, boosting your energy, and helping you rest assured that you’re doing all you can to help you live a longer, healthier life.
Diet, exercise, and lowering stress levels can all help your heart stay healthy. You’ll also want to consider staying away from substances that can cause heart damage, including alcohol and tobacco. Here, we’ll take a closer look into how certain lifestyle changes can help your heart stay strong.
Diet: foods for a healthy heart
Why is diet important?
If you’re researching how to improve cardiovascular health, you likely already know the importance of choosing foods for a healthy heart. Cutting out processed and fried foods can be a great choice to help your heart get strong, but eating foods for a healthy heart isn’t just about what you have to give up–it’s also about finding new favorites. Here, we’ll take a look at both what you’ll want to cut down on in your diet to boost the health of your heart, as well as delicious new favorites you’ll want to add as you work to get healthy.
Certain nutrients, foods, and minerals can affect how well the cardiovascular system functions. While the tips below are a good fit for most people who’re working to improve their cardiovascular health, it’s important that you talk with your doctor before making changes to your diet, especially if you’ve been informed that you’re experiencing cardiovascular disease. Your doctor will be able to work with you and monitor your progress to discover what type of nutrition plan is the best fit for your heart health needs.
Excess sodium can cause high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease. One study showed that eating a diet high in sodium may cause water retention—straining the heart as it works harder to move extra fluid through the body. It’s recommended most adults limit their intake to 1,500 mg of sodium a day.
Consuming too many unhealthy fats (saturated and trans fats) can cause high cholesterol, which increases the chance of coronary artery disease. When cholesterol is too high, plaque can build up in the arteries—putting you at higher risk for heart attack and stroke.
Try avoiding too many unhealthy fats like fatty meats, dairy, and fried foods. Instead, do your best to eat good fats like olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
So what foods and nutrients support cardiovascular health?
High-fiber diets have many benefits, like:
- Controlling blood sugar levels
- Reducing your risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD)
- Maintaining and achieving a healthy weight
- Lowering total blood cholesterol levels by lowering “bad” cholesterol levels.
Whole grains—or grains that haven’t been refined to remove their bran and germ—are a good source of fiber and other nutrients that help regulate blood pressure and boost heart health. Foods like oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, and whole-grain pasta are great options. Or choose whole grains like barley, quinoa, buckwheat, and brown rice instead of refined grains like white rice or things made with white flour.
Vegetables and fruits are both low in calories and rich in fiber—and have other nutrients that may help prevent CVD. Load up on red, yellow, and orange produce like carrots, red peppers, and tomatoes; they contain carotenoids and vitamins that can nourish heart health. Berries are full of heart-healthy phytonutrients—try throwing some in a smoothie or your morning oatmeal.
Exercise for heart health
Your heart is a muscle just like your biceps and calves—exercise can strengthen it. If it’s been awhile since you last hit the gym, got out for a walk, or sit down to do some stretching at the end of the day, don’t worry–there’s no need to train for a marathon to boost the health of your heart (unless that’s your thing). Simply getting active a few times a week can work wonders to help get your heart health back on track, one workout at a time. No matter what your limitations, there are movement strategies you can use to begin the process of strengthening your body–and your heart.
The benefits of exercise include:
- Lower blood pressure. Exercising can help lower blood pressure and slow your resting heart rate.
- Reduced inflammation. As bodily systems are activated through exercise, the body adapts and reduces chronic inflammation.
- Healthy weight. Being overweight can put stress on the heart and cause buildup in arteries, increasing the risk for heart disease and stroke. Exercise, when paired with a healthy diet, can help to maintain a healthy weight.
- Strengthened muscles and bodily systems. A combination of aerobic exercise and strength training is recommended to improve your muscles' ability to draw oxygen from the blood. This reduces the need for your heart to work harder to pump more blood to muscles.
- Reduced stress hormones. Exercise reduces stress hormones, which put a burden on the heart. Many studies also suggest that people who exercise consistently are less likely to suffer from a sudden heart attack.
If you’re looking to exercise more, a combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training has been shown to be best for heart health.
Aerobic exercise, also fittingly called “cardio,” relies on breathing to fuel the activation of large muscle groups for a sustained period of time. Aerobic literally means “with oxygen.” It improves circulation to lower blood pressure and heart rate. It can also help your heart pump stronger. Ideally, for healthy individuals, a routine of 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week is best. But beginners should take their time and work their way up. If you are managing health conditions or haven’t exercised in a while, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about what exercise program is right for you. Aerobic exercises include:
- Cycling / arm cycling
- Jump rope
- Brisk walking
Resistance training, also known as strength training, has a more direct effect on body composition. Resistance training grows and strengthens muscle mass while reducing body fat. One study found that one hour per week of resistance training also reduced a specific type of fat around the heart, potentially reducing risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Some examples of resistance training include:
- Weight machines
- Resistance bands
- Free weight workouts (dumbbells and barbells)
- Body weight exercises (pushups, chin-ups, squats)
Exercise is a powerful practice to support cardiovascular health—especially in combination with a healthy diet. If possible, make a plan to get moving this week.
If you struggle to stay on track when it comes to exercise, you aren’t alone. Teaming up with a friend or family member who’s also working to improve their habits can be a great way to stay the course when motivation wanes. Setting a regular time to walk or do other exercise that allows you to still have a conversation with a friend or a group can help you stay on track, even on days when you’d rather hit the couch than lace up your sneakers.
Healthy habits for heart
Habits can also play a big role in the health of your heart.
Sticking to habit changes can be tough, and it’s important that you set achievable goals to help you stay motivated as you work to make small changes that will impact your life in a big way.
Higher stress levels may cause higher blood pressure—amplifying your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Don’t skip out on regular checkups. Finding potential health issues early can help you get the right treatment quickly and avoid any unnecessary complications.
What are habits to avoid?
Alcohol and smoking can lead to poor heart health.
According to the CDC, smoking causes around 1 in 4 deaths from CVD. Chemicals found in tobacco smoke cause cells that line blood vessels to become swollen and inflamed. This narrows the blood vessels—leading to cardiovascular conditions.
Excessive drinking can lead to heart failure, high blood pressure, or stroke. It can also contribute to cardiomyopathy—a disorder that affects the heart muscle. Alcohol is high in calories too. Excessive drinking can lead to weight gain and becoming overweight, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Maintaining and improving cardiovascular health starts with your lifestyle. If you can eat better, exercise regularly, and avoid bad habits you may begin to build a more robust cardiovascular system. Adopting a new lifestyle can be challenging, but making small changes on a daily basis can help you establish healthy habits to improve your overall health and well-being. By taking things one day at a time, you can gradually build a foundation of healthy behaviors that will benefit you in the long run.
If you learned anything new, share this with a friend or family member who could benefit from learning about these tips for better cardiovascular health.
Evidation: Helping you take control of your health
At Evidation, we’re here to work with you to help you make the most of your health data. When you keep track of your health data trends, you’re able to spot what’s working well–and what needs improvement. This means you’re able to get in front of problems before they start. If you’re ready to take strides forward in your health, we’re excited to get to know you. Download the Evidation app today.