As Valentine’s Day rolls around, it’s hard to escape all the hearts in pink and red and every shade in between. They’re EVERYWHERE. In this season of romance and love, we think your own heart deserves a little attention too. Here are 5 scientifically-backed ways to keep your heart happy and healthy:
1. Take care of the basics
A healthy diet and exercise regimen are essential for a healthy heart. There’s no way around it. Most of the main predictors for heart disease, including hypertension, high blood cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and physical inactivity can be modulated with diet and exercise. For some tips, the American Heart Association has an excellent guideline for a heart-healthy diet, and they recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week.
On top of preventing heart disease, research also shows that certain foods and regular exercise can make you happier. In a study of more than 12,000 subjects, people who consumed the most processed foods like fries, fried chicken, cookies, and cakes were 37% more likely to become depressed than people who avoided junk foods. Mediterranean diets seem to cause the opposite effect and may slow the rate of neuropsychological decline in older age. Exercise can make these mood and cognitive benefits even more pronounced. In the short-term, a good exercise session can improve your mood for about 4 hours, but regular exercise long-term has the potential to improve mood and self-esteem, and slow the progression of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, depression, and ADHD by promoting neuron creation.
2. Invest in positive relationships
Emotionally supportive relationships, characterized by caring, sympathy, and understanding keep your heart healthy. In fact, the degree to which you feel loved in your relationships affects your risk for atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, and how quickly it advances. Research also shows that negative close relationships increase the risk for coronary heart disease even more than positive relationships can protect you from it. That’s because negative interactions carry heavy risks for depression, reduced self-esteem, and anger, all of which lead to inflammatory and immune stress responses that damage your organs.
Ultimately, it’s important for you to feel valued, so do your heart a favor by seeking supportive relationships and managing negative ones, whether that means repairing them, distancing yourself, or asking for outside help. Recognize, also, that relationships are a two-way street. In a study of individuals above 70 years old, something as trivial as helping others with small tasks and making them feel like help is available when they need it has been shown in research to prolong life for both parties.
3. Limit your work stress
Work can come with a lot of heart-damaging stress, especially since most of us spend the majority of our waking hours working. Maybe you have little control over your job prospects. Maybe you lack support from your colleagues. Maybe you experience an unfairly low pay rate. Or maybe you feel a lack of due recognition. These circumstances have all been found in research to be associated with risk factors for coronary heart disease like high LDL cholesterol levels and hypertension. In a study of more than 10,000 subjects, a chronic (5-year) effort-reward imbalance at work independently doubled the risk of new coronary heart disease.
Even if this speaks to your personal situation, there are certain things you can do to help your heart. Effective modifications include giving up an over-commitment to work. You may just be exhibiting too much need for control. Also, you can try stress-relieving techniques like regularly performing progressive muscular relaxation, listening to your favorite music, and monitoring emotions that might be counterproductive. Instead of bottling up stress, that energy can be used instead to remind yourself that you can always freshen your perspective, stimulate conversations with your colleagues about structural changes at your company, and even hone in on transferrable skills that can land you a more rewarding job. Coping with problem-solving tactics protects your heart from the damages of stress.
4. Tune into your feelings
Research shows that tuning into your emotions, being self-aware, and remaining optimistic are all keys to a healthy heart. You’ve likely felt your pulse racing at a time when you were very defensive, scared, or angry. That’s because hostility, anxiety, and anger are highly reactive emotions that increase your body’s stress response. As a result, your body can lose some control of your heart rate and initiate processes that promote blood clots and high blood pressure, both of which contribute to an increased risk for a heart attack. The hopeful news is that social support has been shown to decrease these disease risks, even for Type A (‘hostile’) and Type D (‘distressed’) people who tend to veer towards reactive responses. Another negative emotion, depression, also acts as a strong risk factor for heart disease and can benefit from social involvement.
Before stressful events come along, it’s critical that you have modes of support set up. Counseling and other uplifting relationships and activities can help you explore unhealthy emotional responses and encourage practical problem-solving, which will give your optimism a healthy boost. Quite interestingly, research studies have linked high levels of optimism with lower levels of blood pressure and higher levels of circulating immune cells that help the body defend against stress. A tendency towards forgiveness has also been proposed in research to affect physiological health. The American Heart Association even has a resource for coping with feelings, specifically to prevent health risks in cardiac patients.
5. Make meaningful life goals
As mentioned when discussing work stress, lowering one’s over-commitment to work can increase happiness and protect your heart’s health. More broadly though, extrinsic success goals in general, which include pursuing the ability to buy things, impressing or controlling others, and succeeding in a job, negatively relate to life satisfaction. In research, focusing on material goals predicts a whole slew of heart disease risk factors like depression, anxiety, low life contentment, disrupted sleep, and emotional disturbances. Health, in contrast, was found to be higher in people with more intrinsic goals like relational intimacy – deep interpersonal relationships built on trust and affection – and generativity – giving of oneself to others and being concerned for future generations. These pursuits, along with prayer, meditation, and reading spiritual texts have been shown in research to support health and happiness, especially when individuals were faced with making meaning of and adjusting to change and adversity.
When the cardiovascular system is studied specifically, research finds that people who practice self-reflection and live consistently with intrinsic life goals have lower levels of heart disease risk. Truly, the potential inadvertent health benefits of a relationally-oriented and generous life are many. The list includes less cigarette smoking, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, more physical activity, less alcohol abuse, better diets, lower stress levels, greater social support, lower hostility and anxiety, greater optimism and hope, and greater well-being overall.
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