According to hard data, five harmful habits herald the coming of heart disease. These five are smoking, being inactive, carrying too many pounds, eating poorly, and drinking too much alcohol.
Alone and together, they set the stage for artery-damaging atherosclerosis and spur it onward. They do this by deranging metabolism and changing how cells and tissues work. They also disturb the markers of health we worry about so much: blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. All too often, the end result of these five habits is a heart attack, stroke, peripheral artery disease, valve problem, aortic aneurysm, or heart failure. And the damage they cause isn't limited to the cardiovascular system, but extends to the kidneys, bones, and brain.
What can making better choices do for health and longevity? Consider this provocative finding from the Nurses' Health Study. Nonsmoking women with a healthy weight who exercised regularly, consumed a healthy diet, and had an alcoholic drink every other day were 83% less likely to have had a heart attack or to have died of heart disease over a 14-year period, compared with all the other women in the study. The results were almost identical in a similar study in men. In these two studies, more than two-thirds of all cardiovascular events could be chalked up to smoking, excess weight, poor diet, and drinking too much.
Five strategies for change
Count on these five white knights to protect your heart, your arteries, and the rest of you. They will make you look better and feel better. And it's never too late to start.
- Avoid tobacco. Smoke from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes is as bad for the heart and arteries as it is for the lungs. If you smoke, quitting is the biggest gift of health you can give yourself. Secondhand smoke is also toxic, so avoid it whenever possible.
- Be active. Exercise and physical activity are about the closest things you have to magic bullets against heart disease and other chronic conditions. Any amount of activity is better than none; at least 30 minutes a day is best.
- Aim for a healthy weight. Carrying extra pounds, especially around the belly, strains the heart and tips you toward diabetes. If you are overweight, losing just 5% to 10% of your starting weight can make a big difference in your blood pressure and blood sugar.
- Enliven your diet. Add fruits and vegetables, whole grains, unsaturated fat, good protein (from beans, nuts, fish, and poultry), and herbs and spices. Subtract processed foods, salt, rapidly digested carbohydrates (from white bread, white rice, potatoes, and the like), red meat, and soda or other sugar-sweetened beverages.
- Drink alcohol in moderation (if at all). If you drink alcohol, limit your intake — one to two drinks a day for men, no more than one a day for women.
If you have one or more habits that are working against you, now is as good a time as any to set a course for better health. How? The American Heart Association recommends "cognitive behavioral strategies for promoting behavior change." They aim to help you think more positively about yourself as you make healthy changes. Here are some of those strategies:
Set goals. Having specific, achievable goals is a key strategy for successful change. Goals that involve behaviors ("I will eat three servings of whole grains a day") tend to work better than physiological goals ("I will lower my cholesterol").
Track your progress. With all the things you have to remember each day, it's hard to know whether you are meeting your daily goals. Data from dozens of studies show that self-monitoring is an important attribute of successful changers. You can track your exercise or pounds lost with a notebook, a computer, a smartphone, or an invention of your own.
Motivation. Changing a habit or behavior is easier if you have a good reason for doing it. Motivation can be something big, like getting in shape for a walking trip with a grandchild, or small, like fitting into a slimmer suit for a wedding. The more personal the motivator, the better.
Get support. Starting a change isn't nearly as challenging as sticking with it. Support from family, friends, a doctor, or someone else — even from an online community — can provide feedback and encouragement, especially when you are feeling low.
You don't need to aim for a complete transformation all at once. Small changes in diet, exercise, or weight can make a big difference in your health. Setting goals you can realistically achieve, and then meeting them, can snowball into even bigger improvements.